Prince's police strike terror into opposition

Continuing his series on the troubled Gulf state of Bahrain, Robert Fisk finds exile, torture or death is the price paid for supporting democratic change
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The Independent Online
The night Ian Henderson's men came to arrest Sheikh Abdul Amir al-Jamri at his Bahrain home last month, the 58-year-old cleric managed to send a final fax to his son in London. Police had surrounded the house, he said. He thought he would be taken away within hours.

"My father described the siege and the situation in Bahrain," Mansour al-Jamri says. "They listened to his phone and had cut it off, but my father thought that they had somehow forgotten the fax line. So I received a message in his own handwriting when the police were outside his door on 20 January. He told me that everyone in Bahrain had become 'drugged' by police violence and that the authorities had become 'pig-headed'. He finished by saying: 'I hope this will not be my last fax.' It was."

Bahrain's State Investigation Department, run by the retired British colonial policeman, Ian Henderson, locked Sheikh Jamri up in the al-Qalaa prison, where he remains.

"I have no more news of him," his engineer son says. "Our family have not seen him but the current policy of the government is not to have any more deaths, so I believe he is OK. After last year's deaths, especially of two men who died under torture, they realised the implications. All prisoners are now being given medical check-ups."

That is more than could be said of Said al-Eskafy, who died, apparently under torture, in the Al-Khamees police headquarters on the island on 6 July last year. His father claimed his son, a Muslim Shia of Arab origin who was only 16, had been sexually abused and that his body showed signs of gangrenous wounds.

Hussein Qambar, a Bahraini Shia of Iranian origin, also died in police custody, on 4 January last year, but his frightened family, who do not possess Bahraini passports and fear deportation, refuse to discuss the boy's death.

Since unrest began in Shia areas of Bahrain in 1994, 14 civilians have died. The government has blamed Iran for fomenting violence and for inspiring a series of small bomb attacks, although the Bahraini opposition is now so active that involvement by Tehran would appear superfluous.

Four distinct groups call for democratic reform. All call for the return of the 1973 constitution and the parliament that Sheikh Issa bin Salman al- Khalifa dissolved in 1975 on the apparent orders of Saudi Arabia. One goes further. The Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain, which maintains a "relations office" in Tehran, demands a constitution that will not allow rulers the right to dissolve parliament in future. Some elements in this group, most of whose members have been arrested and deported, have called for Sheikh Issa's overthrow and expressed their desire for an Islamic state.

The Bahrain Islamic Liberation Movement, with which Sheikh Jamri is identified and with whom the government is sometimes disposed to negotiate, also represents only the Shias of Bahrain who comprise up to 70 per cent of the population. It has never sought the end of Sheikh Issa's rule.

The Popular Front and the National Liberation Front contain Sunni members and demand no more than the basics of a democracy. Ahmed al-Shamlan, the Bahraini lawyer and poet re-arrested by Henderson's men this month, is largely regarded as a supporter of this coalition, whose nationalist, secular credentials have spared it neither deportation nor harassment.

The threat these groups represent to Sheikh Issa's government is real. Democracy would mean the end of princely rule, which Bahrain's Saudi neighbours would never contemplate. Thus the minister of interior, or, more specifically, his senior policeman, Mr Henderson, has been disposed to talk to opposition leaders who appear to represent the slower road to democracy, in the apparent aim of pacifying the poor Shia population in return for employment opportunities and only promises of reform.

Negotiators for the release of jailed clerics have suffered the unhappy experience of being arrested themselves. After initial demands for democratic reform were read out in mosques in November 1994, the police arrested Sheikh Ali Salman, an influential Shia preacher.

In a successful effort to obtain his release, a delegation held talks at the ministry of interior. It included Sheikh Khalil Sultan, Sayed Haidar al-Sitri, Sheikh Hamze al-Deiri, Sheikh Abdul-Amir al-Jamri, Abdul-Wahab Hussein, Sheikh Hussein al-Dehi, Sheikh Hassan Sultan, Hassan Msheima, Sheikh Ali Ashour and Sheikh Ali Aljedhafsi. Of these, the first is now in exile in Beirut, al-Sitri and al-Deiri are exiled in London, while the remainder are in the al-Qalaa prison in Bahrain.

After discussions with Mr Henderson during their imprisonment last year Khalil Sultan, Hassan Sultan and Jamri agreed to call on Shias to end protests in return for the release of political prisoners and democratic reform. On a tour of opposition groups after his release, to ask them to end their campaign as part of the deal, Khalil Sultan heard the interior ministry denied any such bargain. The truce collapsed and the four organisations were left to carry on campaigns in exile, publicising the torture carried out by Mr Henderson's men.

Telephone boxes on the island have been disconnected from international lines; a congratulatory call to a newly freed prisoner from his sister in Damascus last month led to the man's rearrest 10 days later. About 1,000 Bahrainis are in exile for demanding democratic rule in the island.

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