Middle East

Bahrain's security clampdown divides kingdom

Anti-government protests in Bahrain have been squashed but resentment of the Sunni monarchy simmers among the tiny Gulf kingdom's Shia majority, reports the BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner in the capital, Manama.

Bahrain is now under what is officially called a state of national security - imposed last month when the government's patience with protesters and their roadblocks snapped.

But it is martial law by any other name.

Police checkpoints are up all over the country, there are tanks stationed in the centre of the capital Manama, a curfew from midnight until early morning and more than 1,000 troops and police from neighbouring Arab Gulf states helping to guard vital installations.

That's fine by us, say many Bahrainis from the ruling Sunni minority, as well as expatriates.

They feel reassured, not threatened, by the checkpoints that have replaced the protesters' anarchic and intimidating roadblocks. But most Shia Muslims tell a different story.

Howls of grief

In Manama's suburb of North Sehla we went to a packed Shia funeral for one of several detainees to die in police custody.

Accused of trying to run over a policeman during a protest, Ali Isa al-Saqer had handed himself over to police after his family say they were threatened.

Six days later he died in their custody, the authorities say he fought his jailers.

His family, seeing his battered body for the first time since his arrest, collapsed in howls of grief; his wounds were quite simply horrific.

Beaten black and blue, his lacerated back resembled a bloody zebra; he appeared to have been whipped with heavy cables, his ankles and wrists manacled.

I brought up his case with the health minister, Dr Fatima al-Beloushi, who is also minister for human rights.

At first she said that the opposition had altered the images to invent the lacerations. But when I replied that we had been to the funeral and seen them ourselves she immediately promised a full investigation.

Image caption Deaths in police custody, from horrific injuries, are inflaming feeling

Daniel Williams, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch, told me after seeing Mr Saqer's body: "If he had been in a car wreck he might have been better off."

Suffering now

Opposition activists have frequently been prone to exaggeration, claiming wrongly for example that they were being fired on by helicopters. But they are certainly suffering now.

In the last few days the security apparatus appears to have stepped up its intimidation of anyone even suspected of opposition.

People are grabbed at two in the morning from their beds, beaten in front of their families then dragged away by heavily-armed masked men and taken off to unknown cells. The family is rarely, if ever, told where.

More than 400 people have been detained this year. Four have reportedly died in custody. Not surprisingly, this is inflaming large parts of the Shia community.

Coupled with this is an organised programme of humiliation of Shia by "baltajiya" - thugs who come at night and smash up community gathering places and spray pro-ruling family graffiti on the walls of Shia areas with antagonising phrases like "the al-Khalifa are a crown upon your head".

Image caption Graffiti taunting Shia Bahrainis: "The Khalifa are a crown on your head"

Large numbers of people, mostly Shia, including doctors and other professionals, have recently lost their jobs, officially for absenting themselves from their jobs during the protests.

As one Western diplomat put it to me: "Making an enemy of a whole section of the population who are now unemployed, angry and clever is not wise, it is sowing the seeds for future trouble."

Dire warning

On the island of Muharraq, just next to the capital, we found unease too among the Sunni community.

At Friday prayers at this Sunni mosque we met a community largely supportive of the government's crackdown.

Worshippers told me they welcomed the Saudi troops that Iran and many Shia have branded as "invaders".

They said the protesters had gone too far, paralysing the country's economy with their vigilante roadblocks.

I asked Sheikh Abdullatif al-Mahmoud, the spiritual leader of Bahrain's sizable Sunni minority, what he thought would happen if protesters from the Shia majority ever deposed the Sunni ruling family.

Sheikh Mahmoud warned of terrible consequences: "If they manage to seize power, Sunnis in Bahrain will suffer and we'll see bloodshed and killings."

For now, the country is holding its breath.

One month into the three-month state of emergency there are attempts to pretend everything is "getting back to normal" despite the sand-coloured armoured vehicles at junctions and a row of tanks guarding what used to be Pearl Roundabout, the now-bulldozed centre of the protests in February and March.

After losing patience with the opposition and their changing demands, the regime's hardliners have got their security clampdown, the reformers have been sidelined and negotiations on political reform have stalled.

It is as if a lid has been clamped back onto a boiling pot, while at the same time the fire beneath it is being stoked.

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