MANAMA, Bahrain – In a house at the end of a maze of narrow streets, I sat listening to a dozen young men as they described their close encounters with the full force of Bahrain's government crackdown. We were in one of the poor, Shiite villages scattered across the country, which have remained hotbeds for revolt despite the government's persistent attempts to suppress the uprising that began last year.
The boys wore an assortment of soccer shirts, and those awful rat-tail haircuts teenage boys all over the world think look cool. They said they had been severely beaten by the police in the previous two days. "They beat us until they got tired, then other policemen would take over and beat us more," said one boy.
For all of the Bahraini government's efforts to show progress on human rights in response to the inquiry it commissioned last year, not much seems to have changed in places like this. The regime touts that "leading international legal, police and other experts" that have been shipped in "to advise on ... practical reforms," as Minister for Human Rights Fatima Al Balooshi told the U.N. Human Rights Council. These experts include John Yates, a former assistant commissioner to the London Metropolitan Police Service, and John Timoney, a former police chief in Miami and Philadelphia.
Some in Bahrain's government may be sincere about reform, but the gap between rhetoric and reality is huge. A new police code of conduct declares "a zero tolerance policy on torture and any other type of mistreatment" and that "force shall be not be used except when absolutely necessary or when it is used in self-defense in accordance with the law." But according to the young men from the village and others I met, these reforms are no more than empty words.
Local human rights activists say hundreds of young men have been taken to secret torture centers over the last few months. Instead of being formally arrested, booked into a police station and mistreated, they say they're more likely to be simply grabbed by a group of riot police, robbed of their phones and money, and then taken to one of these buildings to be beaten for several hours and abandoned somewhere remote. Trusted local human rights organizations report tear gas attacks on villages almost every night.
Some of these young men told me they had been at a peaceful protest last week to mark the anniversary of the death of one of their friends, who had been killed in the pro-democracy demonstrations last year. "It was a peaceful protest in our village," said one. "About 150 men and 50 women, we were holding banners above our heads, not throwing anything at the police."
According to the young men, the riot police suddenly appeared at the protest and opened fire with rubber bullets and tear gas. "They chased us for about 200 yards and cornered about 12 of us in a house. They put us in the kitchen," said one. "They told us all to lift our shirts up over our heads to cover our eyes and stole our phones. They pushed us all into the kitchen and started beating us."
The young men said that about 25 policemen, three at a time, took turns beating the group over the next 90 minutes. "They hit us with rifle butts, broke kitchen plates on our heads, said things about our moms and sisters," another told me. Several showed me severe bruises on their backs and arms, marks they said were from the beatings.
Meanwhile, the police are using tear gas canisters as weapons. There are nightly reports of tear gas being used against peaceful protests and shot directly into people's houses. It is unclear how the police are supposed to account for the number of canisters they take per shift or to detail how many they used and why. The government justifies its use of tear gas by pointing to a fringe group of protestors who throw steel rods, petrol bombs, and other missiles at the police. The police, however, appear to be using as much as they want, whenever they want -- not only against protesters, but also against random civilians.
The following night, I met with some medical professionals just outside the capital Manama as they received calls about injuries from different parts of Bahrain -- pleas for advice or treatment. Within a few hours, they received calls about three serious head injuries caused by police-fired tear gas canisters. "It's shoot to kill," observed one doctor glumly. People who are injured in protests still fear going to hospitals or clinics -- worried that they might be arrested, or worse. The main hospital, the Salmaniya Medical Complex, is under heavy security -- police and military checkpoints guard the gates, and security officials even enter operating areas. Treating the injured is a risky business for medical personnel, who face prosecution if caught at one of the underground network of first aid posts.