Bahrain is the smallest country in the Middle East – about a quarter of the size of Rhode Island, with a similar number of people (around 1.2 million). On February 14, 2011, reform protests – inspired by events in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere – began. The vast majority of those protesting were Shiite Muslims, members of the branch of Islam to which most Bahrainis adhere, calling for a government elected by the people and an end to discrimination in employment and other areas of Bahraini life. Their protests were centered around the Pearl Roundabout area of Bahrain’s capital, Manama. Some pro-government demonstrators, mostly from the minority Sunni community, also organized rallies.
The Bahraini government broke up the reform protests in a crackdown marked by excessive force, and at least seven people were killed. The security forces withdrew from the Pearl Roundabout on February 18, the demonstrators reclaimed the area, and the protests resumed. Some elements of the protestors started to call for more radical reforms, including an end to the monarchical rule of the Sunni al-Khalifa dynasty. Some protests turned violent, and there are reports that some antigovernment protestors entered the university and attacked students, while others attacked Asian migrant workers, causing three deaths.
On March 15, a State of National Safety was announced in Bahrain. The following day, the Bahraini security forces, backed by 1,000 troops from neighboring Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia, stormed protestors at the Pearl Roundabout area for the second time, and cleared the demonstrators in a large show of force. At least two protestors and two policemen were reportedly killed and scores of protestors injured by the security forces.
Since then, the country has seen a wave of arbitrary arrests, widespread and credible reports of torture, attacks on Shiite religious sites, large numbers of people suspended or fired from their jobs, at least four deaths in custody, and a number of other deaths of civilians on the street under suspicious circumstances. A Bahraini government official told Human Rights First that he did not know how many people the government had arrested since the middle of March in connection with the political protests. While the Bahraini security forces have released some, they are still arresting others. Security forces have detained over 800 people, and possibly many more in all. The Bahraini government has put dozens of people on trial in military courts, and four Shiite men have been sentenced to death. Bahrain’s King Hamad bin ‘Issa Al Khalifa has said the State of National Safety, announced on March 15, will be lifted on June 1.
This report is based on research conducted by Human Rights First in Bahrain from May 8 to May 13. Human Rights First met with human rights defenders and activists, victims of human rights violations and their families, eyewitnesses to protests and clashes, representatives of the Bahraini government and the political opposition, journalists, medical practitioners, and others. It is not intended as a comprehensive survey of all human rights violations in Bahrain since mid-February, but includes illustrative cases and recommends actions the U.S. government should take to address the crisis.