DUBAI (Reuters) - Bahrain’s interior minister said on Tuesday security forces had not targeted any sect after recent unrest, rejecting opposition complaints the Sunni-led state has subjected majority Shi’ites to abuse.
Earlier this month, Bahrain’s Sunni rulers, the al-Khalifa family, imposed martial law and called in troops from fellow Sunni-ruled Gulf neighbors, including Saudi Arabia, to quell weeks of pro-democracy protests led mostly by Shi’ites.
The severity of the crackdown, which banned all public gatherings and spread masked security forces across the city to man checkpoints, stunned Bahraini Shi’ites and sparked criticism from the region’s non-Arab Shi’ite power Iran.
But Sheikh Rashed al-Khalifa, in a speech to the Bahraini parliament, from which leading Shi’ite opposition group Wefaq resigned weeks ago over the crackdown, said police and soldiers were not pursuing the Shi’ite population.
“The measures are not imposed against any religious sect as some have said, but rather they are used against those who have broken the law. We are not trying to spread evil, but good, and outlaws will meet justice,” he said in a statement distributed by the state news agency BNA.
More than 60 percent of Bahrainis are Shi’ites and most are calling for a constitutional monarchy. But demands by hardliners for the overthrow of the monarchy have alarmed minority Sunnis, who fear unrest serves Iran, just across Gulf waters.
But Wefaq reported on Monday that 250 people had been arrested and 44 gone missing since the March 16 crackdown. It said most were not politicians or activists, but were Shi’ite.
“At the checkpoints they use racist and sectarian practices. They’re arresting people based on their religious background,” Wefaq member Mattar Ibrahim Mattar told Reuters by telephone.
Military prosecutors have banned media from reporting about suspects and cases linked to martial law, BNA said on Monday.
According to Wefaq and U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), the bodies of several who went missing in the crackdown have been found with gunshot wounds and heavy bruising from beatings.
In one of the first government death toll estimates, Sheikh Rashed said 24 people were killed in the unrest in Bahrain, and said four were policemen, seven were “innocent civilians,” and 11 were “people who shared in rioting.”
“We hoped not to have any victims, whether they were civilians or soldiers or rioters, but unfortunately the insistence on illegal acts and chaos caused them.”
The Monday parliament session which Sheikh Rashed attended also formally accepted 11 of the 18 resignations from the Wefaq bloc, and delayed a decision on seven of them. Wefaq said in a statement it did not understand the reason for the delay and the bloc was firm in its decision to resign.
Editing by Ralph Boulton