MANAMA, Bahrain — Empowered by a six-week-old state of emergency, the Sunni minority government of Bahrain has arrested scores of Shiite women teachers and schoolgirls, held them for days in prison and subjected them to physical and verbal abuse, according to victims, human rights advocates and a former member of parliament.
In the fast-expanding catalogue of widespread and systematic mistreatment of Shiites here, some observers say the red line will be the sexual abuse of women detainees, a step that if taken could provoke violence between the two Muslim sects. The security forces appear to be at the brink of crossing it.
At least 150 women have been arrested, and at least 17 remain in custody, according to al Wefaq, the moderate Shiite political organization. Nabeel Rajab, president of the independent Bahrain Center for Human Rights, thinks the number is a lot higher, but he said late last week that there were no reports of sexual molestation “as of this moment.”
Yasmeen, age 16 — McClatchy is withholding her real name to protect her from retribution — was ordered from her school on April 26 and held three days along with four other teenage girls. She told McClatchy that on the drive to police headquarters, police threatened to rape them and insulted them as not being true Muslims.
At the stationhouse, “they beat me on the head with a black rubber hose,” she told McClatchy in an interview. “They threw me against the wall. The policeman ordered me to remove my headscarf. He took my head and pulled my hair, pushed me against the wall, injuring my head,” she said.
They asked her if she’d been at the anti-government rallies at Bahrain’s Pearl Roundabout. She had been, but said she didn’t take an active part in the demonstrations. That was about the only serious question.
Yasmeen, who is slight of frame and wears a black abayah (a long robe-like dress) and headscarf, was interviewed at the offices of al Wefaq. The Shiite political organization had 18 of its members elected to the 40-member parliament. They quit, however, to protest the current crackdown.
One crude threat to Yasmeen referred to Hassan Mushaima, a militant opponent of the monarchy, whom the government, to the surprise of many observers, allowed back in the country at the height of protests last February. “We are going to do to you what Hassan Mushaima did to you in a tent,” the police interrogator said, Yasmeen remembered. He also accused her of being a “muta,” or “temporary wife” and of walking on a picture of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, the Sunni king of this small Gulf island state.
They “played with our psychology,” Yasmeen said. She said that they threatened to turn the girls over to the Saudi military, which now has 1,500 troops on the island. “They will manage your case,” she recalled her captors saying. “We were under stress. I fainted,” she recounted. “I could not imagine I would be taken there.”
According to Mattar al Mattar, one of the Shiite members of parliament, there were at least seven or eight cases in which police rounded up schoolchildren. The authorities arrested Mattar on May 1 and are holding him on unknown charges.
A schoolteacher from a village near Manama told McClatchy that nine teachers in her school had been hauled out of their classrooms in mid-April and held for at least nine days. Security authorities charged that they’d shouted “Down with Hamad.” They, too, were beaten with black rubber hoses. “They had to stand for more than 10 hours, facing the wall,” she said. McClatchy is withholding the identity of the schoolteacher to protect her from retaliation.
The U.S. Embassy declined to comment specifically on the treatment of women. But the State Department provided a statement to McClatchy expressing concern: “We remain extremely troubled by reports of ongoing human rights abuses and violations of medical neutrality in Bahrain, and think that these actions only exacerbate frictions in Bahraini society. As we have said many times, we do not believe that security measures will resolve the challenges faced by Bahrain. We also continue to urge the Bahraini government to take steps to facilitate the return to serious engagement with all sectors of society on a political dialogue.”
For Yasmeen, those are just words. Despite what she’s been through, or perhaps because of it, she’s angry. “After I was released, I was proud. If there is a chance for another demonstration, I would go. All of us came out stronger,” she said.