A Bahraini protester runs from tear gas released by riot police during clashes in Sanabis village, February 19, 2013. (Reuters/Hamad I Mohammed)
The second anniversary of Bahrain’s uprising on February 14 was marked by street protests, tear gas, shotguns and Molotov cocktails. Two protesters and a policeman were killed and dozens of people arrested. The scenes were not unfamiliar in Bahrain, which has gone through two years of upheaval since demonstrators first took to the streets in early 2011 to call for major political reforms.
Since the uprising began, more than eighty people have been killed and hundreds more wounded. Scores of people have been arrested and sentenced before military courts—many of them human rights advocates, political opposition figures and physicians who treated wounded protesters. Reports of systematic prisoner abuse and torture are widespread.
The Obama administration has been relatively low-key in condemning human rights violations by the Bahraini government over the past two years and has largely looked the other way as the monarchy has sought to quash the uprising. Bahrain is home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which patrols the Persian Gulf, through which much of the world’s oil passes.
In January, ProPublica revealed new details of the weaponry sold to the Bahraini government by the US over the past two years, including ammunition, Black Hawk helicopters and a missile system.
“The US says they support democracy but under the table they do something else entirely. This is America’s politics, they look to their interests and that’s it,” says Taimoor Karimi, a 55 year-old lawyer who was arrested in March 2011 and spent nearly six months in jail—where he says he was tortured—on charges of “spreading false news” and “participating in [an] illegal gathering.”
“Our hope is in the American people. They can pressure their government to pull their hand away from under dictatorship,” he says.
Karimi is among thirty-one Bahrainis who had their citizenship revoked by the Interior Ministry in November for “damaging the security of the state,” in a move widely condemned by international human rights groups. Like most of those named, Karimi has no other citizenship. He is Bahraini but is, in effect, stateless.
“I don’t know what it means or why they did this, all I know is that it is illegal,” Karimi says calmly. “They jailed me, tortured me and then took my citizenship. Now I can’t work, I can’t travel, I just sit hand over hand. This is a revolution of rights, of demands for representation.”
Bahrain’s uprising is commonly portrayed as a sectarian struggle, pitting a disenfranchised Shiite majority against a ruling Sunni monarchy. Sectarian discord undoubtedly exists in the country, where many Shia—who comprise roughy 70 percent of the population—claim to be victims of systematic political and economic discrimination on religious grounds. This is perhaps most glaringly evident in the limited number of Shia who serve in key government agencies such as the army, police and security forces.
The easy narrative of a stark Sunni-Shia divide in Bahrain is often echoed in international media coverage, and the unrest is often snubbed in the Arab world as a sectarian conflict. Yet the reality on the ground is more nuanced than that of a neatly cleaved dichotomous society. As noted in an independent inquiry commissioned by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa in 2011: “Bahraini society is not divided into two monolithic sects. Within the Shia and Sunni communities, there exists a diversity of religious views and political opinions. Broad generalizations about the positions or allegiances of either sect misrepresent the social reality of Bahrain.”