MANAMA, Bahrain — When the boys at the head of the column bolted, so did we. A colleague and I had been observing their nighttime march through Diraz, an older, poorer suburb of Bahrain's capital mostly populated by members of the country's Shiite majority. Teenagers and young men walked in front, women in black chadors behind them, chanting "down with Hamad" -- Bahrain's king. The protest was intended as a rebuke to the Formula One auto race Bahrain's ruling family was about to stage in late April to show the world that all was well in the Gulf kingdom after a ruthless crackdown on dissent and more than a year of unrest.
We watched as the youth of Diraz peacefully made their way toward a main road. The riot police waited for them there. Maybe we should have stood fast, on the notion that police chase those who run. But when Bahrain's finest suppress demonstrations, they often fire birdshot and tear-gas canisters directly into the crowd. And the magic words "I am an American" have an effective range far shorter than that of a riot gun.
So we sprinted away with the scattered marchers down one darkened alley, then another. When it was clear the neighborhood was surrounded, we took shelter in a house. The police broke in and pepper-sprayed our eyes; I spoke the magic words, which seemed to calm matters, though we heard screams coming from other parts of the house.
At the police station, we waited as they verified our permission to be in the country. Outside, police tear-gassed mothers of the boys arrested with us, who had come to demand their sons' release. The gas drifted into the station. Everyone -- police, protesters, and we two foreigners -- tasted the sting of Bahrain's crackdown on dissent and its inexorable blowback.
Two days later, we met Maj. Gen. Tariq al-Hassan, Bahrain's chief of public security. We chatted amiably about our experience, reassuring him that we were not mistreated. But we also told him about what we had heard from families in a village next door to Diraz. Their sons had been arrested after a demonstration earlier that week and were taken to the same police station where we'd been detained. Superficially, their story was the same as that of the protesters arrested with us, with two exceptions: No foreigners were watching, and according to multiple eyewitnesses, police had beaten them brutally after their arrest, throwing some off the roof of a building onto a neighboring balcony.
In November 2011, Bahrain had a golden chance to end this kind of police brutality for good. King Hamad had appointed the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, chaired by the esteemed international jurist Cherif Bassiouni, to look into the human rights violations committed when the country's pro-democracy movement was suppressed last year. Bassiouni wrote an honest report, documenting the arrest and torture of opposition leaders and urging far-reaching reforms to punish those responsible and end human rights abuses. To his credit, the king accepted the report and promised to implement it. The government dropped charges against some dissidents accused of speech "crimes," reinstated many people who had been dismissed from work and school for attending protests, and reduced abuse of prisoners in formal detention facilities.
Since then, the momentum has dissipated. There has been no real resumption of dialogue between the government and opposition to pursue what moderates on both sides agree is the only viable solution to Bahrain's crisis -- a constitutional monarchy in which government ministers are chosen by an elected parliament rather than appointed by the king. This course of action would necessarily give Bahrain's Shiite majority more say in running the country, a prospect that is anathema to portions of the island's ruling family as well as its regional backers.
The government has also not ended human rights abuses against protesters. As we would see during our visit, police torture and abuse have simply moved from police stations to the alleyways and back lots of Shiite villages. The courts have agreed to retry key opposition leaders, but the government still refuses to release them, though their convictions were based on nothing more than the content of their speeches and participation in meetings and rallies challenging the monarchy. Also, for the first time in months, there is no approaching milestone -- no committee to be appointed, or report to be issued, or deadline to be met -- that might give moderate leaders reason to ask their people to be patient. The absence of hope is radicalizing both sides.