MANAMA (Reuters) - Bahraini Shi‘ites say they have endured a reign of terror during 11 weeks of martial law imposed to break up a pro-democracy movement that for the first time threatened the control of a Sunni-ruled Gulf Arab dynasty.
Martial law was lifted on Wednesday. The authorities hope this will show investors and tourists that the island state is back to normal. Shi‘ite dissidents fear repression will go on.
Thousands have been detained or dismissed from jobs in a crackdown that has targeted those who took part in six weeks of protests centered on the capital’s Pearl Roundabout. Dozens of Shi‘ite places of worship have been pulled down or vandalized.
Twenty-one people, seven of whom are abroad, are on military trial for trying to overthrow the government. They include figures from Shi‘ite opposition parties who had advocated making Bahrain a republic, as well as the Sunni leader of secular group Waad and independent Shi‘ite rights activists.
Four people have died in custody and two Shi‘ites have been sentenced to death for the killing of a policeman.
The crackdown has for now stifled an unprecedented pro-democracy movement inspired by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia that toppled long-time U.S. allies. The government says the protests were manipulated by Shi‘ite power Iran.
An island state where the Sunni Al-Khalifa family rules over a majority Shi‘ite population, Bahrain has seen such strife before. But doctors, teachers and journalists who have been released, as well as the families of some of the 21 men on trial, say the repression was far worse this time.
They recounted beatings with plastic hosepipes, electric shocks, threats of rape and other humiliations such as being urinated on or verbal insults against their Shi‘ite faith.
Victims were usually blindfolded to avoid seeing their interrogators, who sometimes wore masks themselves to avoid identification, they told Reuters. They all spoke on condition of anonymity and it was not possible to verify the claims.
A teacher in Hamad Town said she and 25 colleagues were hauled out of their school one morning last week by women police who came in two buses.
“They asked us if we went to the roundabout, did we want to bring down the government, and they hinted that they would abuse us sexually once we arrived at the station,” the teacher said.
“They made us sing the national anthem and say ‘the people want Khalifa bin Salman’,” the powerful prime minister of 42 years who is seen as a hard-liner in the ruling family.
In the local police station some of the women faced sexual harassment, the teacher said. “They sexually harassed most of us, but there are things I can’t say that they did,” she said.
“Some teachers never went to the roundabout but had to admit that they did. I was there and admitted that I was, but they wanted me to say I had got a mut‘a marriage,” she said, referring to a Shi‘ite form of temporary marriage.
“They said ‘Your loyalty is to Iran, let Iran take care of you’. They called us Zoroastrians and said we teach prostitution.”
The women were forced to sign papers vowing good behavior and readiness to return to police stations if requested, which would circumvent the ending of the emergency laws.
Dozens of doctors and nurses have also been arrested and around 19 doctors remain in detention. It is not yet clear how many will face trial and on what charges.
State media have said doctors were storing weapons in a nearby hospital during the protests, using ambulances to transfer weapons and stealing government medicines to run a makeshift health center at Pearl Roundabout.
Some were accused of splattering protesters with blood to inflate the numbers of wounded after security forces killed four in a botched attempt to clear the roundabout on February 17.
One who has been released but does not know if charges will be pressed said she was threatened with rape.
“They said ‘We are 14 guys in this room, do you know what we can do to you? It’s the emergency law and we’re free to do what we want’,” she said. Two doctors said a group was forced to record confessions which they believe are intended for Bahrain TV. The channel has aired previous apparent doctor confessions.
The government says such abuse is not systematic and that all cases will be investigated.
“There is no government policy. There have been numerous individual cases where it has been a worry, but where there is concrete evidence of abuse, action was taken,” said Sheikh Abdul-Aziz bin Mubarak Al Khalifa, Senior International Counselor at the Information Affairs Authority.
“When this is all over a review will be done and areas where procedures have to be rectified will take place,” he said.
A Western diplomat said: “We 100 percent believe torture takes place. But the detail of what abuse and the evidence is unclear.”
Bahrain rights activists have reported abuse that some of the 14 men facing military trial have mentioned in court.
Families and lawyers of the men facing trial each have 10 minutes after the court sessions to speak to the accused.
The son of one said an electric drill had been applied on at least one occasion to his father’s leg by military interrogators with Iraqi accents.
“In the 1990s they used electricity on him but this time it was much worse. Now they use a machine with wires,” he said, adding this was in three weeks of interrogation before trial.
“They make him kiss a photo of King Hamad (of Bahrain), King Abdullah (of Saudi Arabia) and the prime minister in the morning and then sing the national anthem,” he said, adding his father said his captors had urinated on him.
Nabeel Rajab of the Bahrain Human Rights Society said two of the 14 men on trial said in court they had marks made by electric drills.
The government has said it is investigating abuse reported by Nazeeha Saeed, a Bahraini correspondent for France 24 television, when she was detained for some 12 hours last week.
Reporters Without Borders said she was beaten by women interrogators to force her to confess that she works with Shi‘ite-run TV channels al-Manar and al-Aalam.
They beat her with plastic tubes, made her bray like a donkey on all-fours and tried to make her drink a bottle of what they said was urine, the group said in a statement.
Editing by Reed Stevenson and Alistair Lyon