Bahrain 2011 protest report goes offline before anniversary News Staff

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — A website that hosted an independent report on Bahrain’s 2011 Arab Spring protests and the government crackdown that ended them went mysteriously offline before being restored on Thursday, just days before the 10th anniversary of the demonstrations.

Bahrain has increasingly sought to erase memories of the mass protests that a decade ago this week threatened the Sunni monarchy’s grip on power. Dissent persists in this tiny island kingdom with a majority-Shite population off the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia. Police have been out in force in city streets over the past week, residents say, taking no chances on renewed demonstration.

After repeated queries from The Associated Press, the website for the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, commissioned by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa was put back online Thursday afternoon. The government described it as a “technical glitch,” without elaborating. Bahraini officials did not respond to earlier, repeated requests for comment on the anniversary.

For weeks starting on Feb. 14, 2011, thousands thronged streets across Bahrain, emboldened and energized by pro-democracy protests roiling Egypt, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen. Bahrain’s protests were organized primarily by the nation’s Shiites seeking greater political rights in the Persian Gulf state, which is a key Western ally and home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet.

“It was overwhelming,” recalled Nazeeha Saeed, a reporter at the time for a French TV news channel, describing the heady days in Pearl Roundabout, the symbolic centre of the capital, Manama, later bulldozed by authorities. “I’d never seen anything like it. People forgot we were a Persian Gulf kingdom supported by powerful monarchies.”

Then, Saeed said, everything went horribly wrong. Security forces tried to disperse the sit-in, responding to protests with torrents of tear gas, rubber bullets and in some cases live fire. Police shot a protester in the head just 20 metres (21 yards) in front of her. She said she was detained, beaten and electrocuted for telling foreign journalists what she saw.

Now in exile in Berlin, Saeed said she cannot return home. Bahrain in 2017 fined her $2,650 in for working with a government-issued press card. The government at the same time refused to accredit two Associated Press journalists and since has tightly controlled visas to report on the island.

As violence escalated over the weeks in February 2011, demonstrations snowballed into a popular movement crossing sectarian divides. Calls for constitutional reform turned into demands for the dismantling of the country’s political structure. The monarchy turned to nearby Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for help, inviting in foreign troops to crush the protests.

After the crackdown, King Hamad ordered an internationally recognized commission of jurists and scholars under the late law professor Cherif Bassiouni to investigate. The resulting 500-page report, based on over 5,100 interviews with protesters and residents, describes prisons rife with torture, scores of arbitrary arrests and the extraction of forced confessions against those caught in the dragnet. Detainees, it reported, were beaten and forced to kiss pictures of the king and prime minister.

A decade on, activists inside Bahrain and in exile say their country is far less free than it was in 2011. Portraying criticism of its rule as an Iranian plot to undermine the country, the government has accelerated its crackdown on dissent. Bahrain blamed Iran for stirring up the 2011 protests as well, though the report by Bassiouni and other experts found no evidence of that.

Tehran denies interfering in Bahrain, though weaponry seized on the island has been linked back to Iran. Even Iran, under the former shah, tried to claim Bahrain as part of its territory.

In the time since 2011, authorities have targeted not only Shiite political groups and religious leaders, but also human rights activists, journalists and online opponents. Mass trials have become commonplace. Political parties have been dismantled. Independent news gathering on the island has become increasingly difficult. Meanwhile, there have been sporadic, low-level attacks on police and other targets by Shiite militant groups.

Even a tweet can land one in prison, despite Bahrain’s constitution guaranteeing its citizens freedom of speech. Nabeel Rajab, one of the 2011 protests most-prominent leaders, only was released last year into home detention due to the coronavirus pandemic after serving years of an internationally criticized prison sentence.

Last fall, activists say, the government intensified its crackdown on online dissent following the death of the long-serving Prime Minister Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa. Protesters in 2011 had demanded that Prince Khalifa resign and be tried for corruption and human rights violations.

One Bahraini man, a former journalist who declined to be identified for fear of reprisals, said he was thrown into prison for two weeks after posting a Quranic verse on social media that security forces said suggested he was gloating over the prime minister’s death.

“Since 2011 we have only moved backward,” the 47-year-old said. “Now, the only meaning of ‘opposition’ in Bahrain is to try to document your friends’ arrests.”

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Follow Isabel DeBre on Twitter at www.twitter.com/isabeldebre.

Isabel Debre, The Associated Press

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