View from Bahrain: 'Safe? They use so much tear gas we can hardly breathe'

Human-rights activists on the island say that clashes in the streets have trebled in recent weeks

Patrick Cockburn
Thursday 12 April 2012 22:51
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"I invite Mr Yates and his family to come and live in my village... where there is violence and tear gas every day," says Ali Mahdi al-Aswad, a former Bahraini MP. He was responding to the claim that Bahrain is almost entirely peaceful by John Yates, the former assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police now working as an adviser to the Bahraini Interior Ministry.

Mr Yates has written to the FIA president Jean Todt saying that Bahrain was peaceable enough to hold the Formula One race. Mr Al-Aswad said he suspected that Mr Yates knew little of Bahrain outside his air-conditioned office. He added that in his village on the north coast of Bahrain there were nightly clashes. So much tear gas is used in the area, according to Mr al-Aswad because of repression of pro-democracy protests, that in his own house "my grandmother can hardly breathe".

Mr Yates paints a very different picture of Bahrain from that presented by anti-government protesters and international human rights organisations.

"These are not lawful protests which are permitted, but violent conduct by a very small minority – often groups of 15-20 young men," he writes. "These are criminal acts being perpetrated against an unarmed police force who, in the face of such attacks, are acting with remarkable restraint."

The letter by Mr Yates is likely to cause anger among the Shia of Bahrain who make up 70 per cent of the Arab population. Human rights activists on the island say that clashes in the streets have trebled in recent weeks because of the hunger strike of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja which has been continuing for over 60 days. The government, however, issued medical details claiming Mr Al Khawaja showed no signs of critical problems and is taking fluids.

The protests in Bahrain are against domination by the Sunni al-Khalifa monarchy which has total control of politics, though the majority of the Arab population are Shia. At their height, the protests probably involved a higher proportion of the population than in any other country in the Arab uprising.

A Saudi-led military force entered the island on 14 March. The following day the government began a campaign of mass arrests, systematic torture and sacking of anybody sympathetic to the protesters. The brutality of the repression was described in detail by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry which also said it could not find any evidence of Iranian involvement as the government had often claimed.

Despite the well-attested use of extreme violence by the government, Mr Yates claims that the protesters "are not representative of the vast majority of delightful, law-abiding citizens that represent the real Bahrain that I see every day".

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