SITRA, Bahrain — In the back alleys and streets of this Shiite Muslim town, a police crackdown looms at any hour of the day, but never more so than at nightfall, when even innocuous civil disobedience can lead to jail and perhaps torture.
The angry young men here know from experience that the police will use helicopters, blunderbuss rifles and tear gas to confront them, but they plot their next nighttime protest march nevertheless, in what's become a cat-and-mouse game under Bahrain's state of emergency, imposed to crush what remains of the country's protest movement.
The police, mainly Sunni Muslims recruited from Pakistan's Baluchistan province as well as Yemen, Syria and other Muslim countries, deploy three or four vans at the entrances to this town's residential neighborhoods. Inside are 12 to 20 men ready to pounce the first moment they hear of a demonstration — even a candlelight vigil — against the government.
They chase the protesters down the streets and alleys, firing birdshot from blunderbusses, while other protests spring up not far away. A visitor driving through Sitra one recent evening saw police chasing and firing in one quarter, and young men marching and chanting in another nearby.
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The chants aren't ambiguous. "Down with the king," a group of about 30 young men chanted as they marched about with small tea candles, referring to King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa, the head of the Khalifa dynasty.
This is what passes for normal now in Bahrain, a Sunni-ruled island nation that's home to the headquarters of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet and where most people follow the Shiite branch of Islam.
For the past two months, the country's rulers have imposed a harsh crackdown on a protest movement that was among the first to spring up after Egypt's Hosni Mubarak was pushed from that country's presidency in February.
The crackdown has included bulldozing Shiite mosques, arresting mainstream opposition politicians and closing the country's main opposition newspaper.
The protest marches that dominated life for weeks here are gone, as is the iconic Pearl Square monument, which had been the gathering point.
Still, every night in many Bahraini villages and towns, residents gather on their rooftops at 8:15 and again at 10 to issue what's become a protest cry: "Allahu akbar," or "God is great." Police deploy helicopters to try to drown out this protest, and to drop tear gas canisters on the rooftops, residents say.
The Sunni government has seized control of the health care system, and that's the police's secret weapon for tracking down protesters, which some experts say violates international conventions that require the humane treatment of all civilians and nondiscriminatory treatment of the injured and sick.
"Today when we see a person injured with birdshot, we have nowhere to take them," said an observer from an international human rights group whose name is being withheld to avoid retaliation. "Birdshot is being used as a distinctive marker to identify protesters. They will not receive treatment. They will be arrested."
The U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights estimates that more than 1,000 people have been detained in the crackdown.
The environment is suffused with fear. With new political trials starting weekly and masked militiamen arresting civilians without judicial process, many Bahrainis live in a state of fright. When a McClatchy correspondent attempted to visit a prominent human rights activist, a taxi driver refused and dumped his fare on the main road. "Do you want them to kill me?" he said of the police. "They could destroy my taxi."
Indeed, taxi drivers and human rights advocates report that authorities have wrecked at least 60 to 70 taxis, apparent retribution for carrying protesters during the February and March demonstrations.
The government, which dominates the airwaves of state television, the state news agency and the print media, offers little response to the international criticism the crackdown has received.
A scathing report by Physicians for Human Rights, a U.S. group that shared the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize, accused Bahrain in a report April 22 of an "all-out assault on health care and health professionals," abductions of doctors in the middle of the night and "egregious" acts against patients and health professionals that included "torture, beating, verbal abuse, humiliation, and threats of rape and killing."
Asked on May 1 for a comment, Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Mubarak al Khalifa, a diplomat drafted to serve as a government spokesman, told McClatchy that he hadn't seen the report. A copy was emailed. Two days later, the same question was put at a news conference to Dr. Hala al Mehza, the acting health minister, who also said she wasn't aware of the report and asked a reporter to send a copy. Asked by email Sunday what she thought of the report, Mehza didn't respond.
Mehza also said she was in almost daily touch with the U.N.'s high commissioner for human rights in Geneva and had cordial conversations with officials there. Yet on Sunday, High Commissioner Navi Pillay voiced deep concern about the "dire" human rights situation. She charged that Bahrain's secret trial of protesters, which led to death sentences for four, was "illegal and absolutely unacceptable" and she spoke of reports of "severe torture" of human rights defenders currently in detention.
State media give banner headlines to government claims that are at total variance with the known facts.
On the eve of World Press Freedom Day on May 3, Prime Minister Prince Khalifa ibn Salman al Khalifa pledged that Bahrain would protect journalists and provide a working atmosphere "to work freely and confidently." A day later, the same paper that had run that story bannered the pledge of King Hamad himself, under the headline: "Press pillar of democracy."
But the regime has driven the sole opposition daily into receivership; fired, deported or arrested senior staff; and forced the editor to resign and will put him on trial next week.
Bahrain's government began its crackdown after Saudi Arabia sent in troops to help quell protests in mid-March, but the al Khalifa dynasty has long had a policy of trying to dilute the Shiites' overwhelming majority — Shiites outnumber Sunnis here by nearly four to one — by offering citizenship to Sunnis from other nations.
In part because the Shiite birthrate is so high, the effort hasn't turned the tide, however.
The Bahraini government isn't the first dictatorship to run afoul of its public.
After the East German Communist regime brutally suppressed a popular uprising in June 1953, playwright Bertolt Brecht advised the country's government that it needed a new population. "The people have lost the government's confidence," he wrote. "Wouldn't it be simpler if the government dissolved the people and chose a new one?"
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