Secret terror stifles wind of change

In his final report on Bahrain Robert Fisk finds autocratic rule in the Gulf state creates a fertile breeding ground for a growing opposition movement
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The Independent Online
When Baroness Thatcher flew to Bahrain last April to attend an economic conference of 500 bankers, industrialists and Gulf leaders, she received a standing ovation for her denunciation of aggression and her condemnation of the United Nations impotence in Bosnia.

Heavy police reinforcements patrolled the angry Shia villages outside the capital, Manama, as the Minister of Information, Tareq al-Moayad, announced that "an open society will spread rapidly, as the winds of change continue to blow over the world. Only fools would attempt to stop the wind."

Since he was fired from the cabinet by the Emir, Sheikh Issa bin Salman al-Khalifa, the thoughtful and sensitive Mr Moayad, who at least understood the need for openness, must be asking himself the identity of the fools of which he spoke. For no winds of change are allowed to blow through the tiny island and the opposition groups which began by demanding democracy are beginning to move beyond their original ambitions.

Their calls are falling on fertile ground, for Bahrain has a unique distinction. Save for the Arab-Israeli conflict, the tiny emirate suffers from almost every problem that the Arab world is heir to: immense wealth alongside destitution; a growing demand for democracy under an autocratic ruler; the seeds of Islamic revolution; sectarian suspicion between Muslim Sunni and Shia; and an American naval base that attracts the suspicion of Iran.

It is not difficult for the Emir's enemies to attack him. Last year, for example, Sheikh Mohamed Ali al-Mahfouz, secretary-general of the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain, told the Hizbollah radio station in Lebanon that his group would call for the overthrow of Sheikh Issa if all Shia prisoners were not released. He went on to accuse not only Sheikh Issa but Ian Henderson, the British head of Bahrain's ruthless intelligence service, of responsibility for the repression of Shia Muslims in the island.

Ever since Bahrain's independence from Britain in 1971, Mr Henderson's State Investigation Service has employed up to 12 ex-British policemen on its staff. When Abdul-Rahman Nouaimi, a dissident exiled in Beirut, last year wrote an article for the Jordanian newspaper al-Madjid, condemning Mr Henderson's brutal secret police and calling for Bahrain "to rid itself of this Glubb Pasha" - a reference to the British officer who was fired by King Hussein after training the infant Jordanian army 40 years ago - Mr Moayad flew to Amman with a letter of complaint from Sheikh Issa. Fahd al-Rimani, the editor of al-Madjid, was taken to court but his case was dismissed.

Mr Nouaimi says that the Jordanian interior minister travelled to Bahrain six months later and Mr Henderson personally told him that the editor should be re-arrested under Jordanian law because the article had caused tension between Jordan and Bahrain. Mr Rimani was again taken to court last December and the case is not yet resolved: he could serve five years' imprisonment. A number of Jordanian officers - including two who have been accused of torturing prisoners - work for Mr Henderson in Bahrain.

Humanitarian workers in Bahrain say that they cannot understand why Sheikh Issa does not make concessions to those opponents who demand only a return to the democratic parliament he dissolved in 1975. "Most of the Shias are now involved in the opposition but only 20 per cent of them are of Iranian rather than Arab origin," one relief official says. "I have found no evidence at all that Iran is behind the unrest."

One opposition spokesman acknowledged that Bahraini Shias listen to Iranian radio news but added that "they also listen to the BBC Arabic and Persian services because they cannot hear the truth on Bahrain radio". A relief worker commented that "it's quite clear that the Emir is trying to stop the rioting in an undemocratic way". Up to 2,000 people are believed to be in custody.

For Westerners Bahrain can seem a friendly enough Ruritania, with the Sheikh's public beach - no Arabs allowed - and its alcohol-serving bars and restaurants a ghost of Britain's colonial past. But Bahrainis are forbidden to enter the southern half of the island, where the US Fifth Fleet's flagship is berthed.

Sheikh Issa and his brother rule by decree and Mr Henderson is regarded as the author of the security law which allows three years' imprisonment without trial. The ruling al-Khalifa family, all Sunnis, have taken large tracts of beach on the island and built hotels and office blocks. The opposition contends that no business deal can be concluded without a commission being paid to the Khalifas.

A Bahraini exile in Lebanon, Abdullah al-Binali, noted with anger a report last month in the Saudi-owned al-Hayat newspaper which stated that Robert Pelletrau, the US Assistant Under-Secretary for Near East affairs, had spoken to the Bahraini Crown Prince, Sheikh Hamad, twice in one week, advising him to create greater employment for Shias.

"The Americans talk about human rights but they go on supporting the government of Bahrain. There have been contacts between our people and the US embassy in Bahrain and we have met officers at the State Department in Washington. Always the Americans say to us that if there is any movement for human rights in Bahrain, they will support us. But they don't. They talk about employment opportunities then just go on supporting Sheikh Issa."