'Medieval' Bahrain struggles to contain fires of rebellion

Robert Fisk, in the first of a series of reports on the most brutal regime in the Gulf, hears of the 'martyrs' who have died at the hands of security police

No one in Qatar is in any doubt why the Bahraini lawyer and poet Ahmed al-Shamlan has just been arrested. The first Sunni Muslim out of more than 2,000 Bahrainis - all of them Shias - to be picked up by Sheikh Issa bin Salman al- Khalifa's security police, Shamlan had called up Qatar radio's immensely popular morning phone-in programme to speak his mind about the lack of democracy in the so-called paradise island which hosts America's fleet in the Gulf.

"The rights of citizens are put aside by authoritarian action ... what the Bahraini people are demanding is the return of the constitution, political rights, freedom of expression, elections," Mr Shamlan announced to astonished listeners in Bahrain, where the programme is equally popular. "Words like 'democracy' or 'reform' are regarded as illegal ... if Gulf citizens were given their full rights, there would be no more problems here ... instead of protecting the legal rights which [Bahrain's] citizens are demanding, the government aborts our demands by igniting sectarian conflicts, creating troubles and complaining about 'foreign intervention'."

Ahmed al-Shamlan must have known what would happen. By the weekend, a Bahraini official working for the internal security services - run by an elderly former British police superintendent called Ian Henderson - announced that Mr Shamlan had been arrested for conspiracy "to light fires and carry out sabotage".

Perhaps aware that this might sound a little far-fetched in ruritanian Bahrain, the same official added a word of explanation which gives something of the flavour of life in the emirate which Britain counts as one of its foremost friends in the Gulf.

"The arrest of the lawyer," the official claimed, "was within the framework of legitimacy and law in accordance with security procedures which the Ministry of Interior is taking to prevent acts of sabotage, to hunt down and arrest those in planning, encouraging or carrying out such acts, to guarantee the safety, possessions and interests of its citizens and residents, and to reinforce the twin pillars of security and stability in the nation." Mr Shamlan, the official went on - without any stated evidence - played an "active role" in recent violence and was "involved with suspicious foreign terrorist organisations".

For "foreign" read Iran, a member of whose embassy staff in the Bahraini capital of Manama has already been sent packing by Sheikh Issa's foreign ministry for allegedly stirring up resentment against the government. But given the home-grown anger of the island's 70 per cent Shia population - most of whom live in near-destitution in the wealthy emirate's interior - there seems little reason to believe that Iran needs to be involved.

The sabotage of electrical installations and a slowly increasing rate of bombings - culminating in Sunday night's explosion outside the Diplomat hotel in central Manama - follows two years of public demands for a return to constitutional rule, freedom of speech and the parliament which Sheikh Issa suspended in 1975 after members uncharitably asked for details of the secret agreement which allowed Washington to maintain a naval base on the island and for new labour laws.

The 14 Shia "martyrs" who have died at the hands of the security police during these past two years of protest - and the 2,000 or so prisoners held in Bahrain's three prisons at al-Qalaa, Safra and Gaw - are now fuel for a growing propaganda campaign organised by Bahraini exiles in London, Damascus, Beirut and Qatar.

Thousands of snapshots of forbidden street demonstrations are being circulated by four opposition groups - two of them secular, two Islamist - along with photographs of those who have been killed.

The latter include Akeel Sulieman al-Safar, a 14-month-old baby who died after inhaling police tear gas on 8 February last year, Hussein Abdullah Ashiri, shot dead by police 10 weeks later, Hani Abbas Khamees who was killed last December - one picture shows his bandaged corpse on a mortuary slab - and Haj Mirza Abdul-Rida who, aged 68, was shot by police during a riot as he left his home in December 1994.

Photographs taken secretly at the funerals of the dead Shias - showing crowds carrying coffins aloft to the village cemeteries - are also being circulated, along with painfully gruesome pictures of blood-covered bodies and bonfires started by masked youths. If the pictures are to be believed - and the Independent's inquiries suggest they are all genuine - then Bahrain is in a far deeper crisis than the world has been led to believe.

The Independent has made repeated but unsuccessful requests to be granted a visa to visit Bahrain over the past month.

At the end of last week, a delegation of eight Kuwaiti members of parliament attempted to visit Sheikh Issa in the hope of mediating between the government and the opposition. Adnan Abdul-Samad, an Islamist assembly member, accused the Bahraini authorities of adopting a "medieval mentality" in dealing with its people, pleading with the government to open a dialogue with those demanding democracy in the island.

The eight Kuwaiti MPs were held at Bahrain airport overnight and then deported back to their own emirate. They carried a petition seeking Sheikh Issa's intercession - to no avail.

In the meantime, the Independent has received a copy of a further petition sent to Sheikh Issa by 37 prominent Bahraini lawyers and intellectuals on 12 January, appealing for a return to democracy and the 1973 constitution. It referred to an earlier petition by 96 Kuwaitis (not MPs) who had made similar demands.

The Bahrainis asked Sheikh Issa - "His Excellency, the Prince of Bahrain, may God preserve him" - to return the island to democratic rule and assured him that Kuwaitis and Bahrainis would "stick together" in their demand for "democratic progress." It ended by expressing the Bahrainis' "deep thanks and esteem" for Sheikh Issa - who promptly rejected the petition.

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