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BAHRAIN: McCarthyism in Manama?

Kanya D'Almeida

WASHINGTON, Apr 27 2011 (IPS) - As the savage crackdown on the majority Shiite opposition movement drags on in Bahrain, King Hamad bin Issa Al Khalifa’s military regime – backed by the hefty armed forces of Sunni- dominated Saudi Arabia – has moved from launching outright assaults on peaceful protestors on the streets of Manama in broad daylight into the murky waters of what experts are calling state terror, featuring all the old tactics of petrifying a population into submission.

On top of facing over 1,500 troops from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)’s most formidable army, the Bahraini people appear to be increasingly encountering the far more sinister face of a monarchy desperate to retain power in the oil-rich Gulf state as regimes topple around it. Midnight knocks on doors, unmarked vehicles whisking activists away in the dead of night and relentless suppression of the media are fast pushing Bahrain into an abyss of impunity, critics here say.

“What we are seeing in [Bahrain] today is like what the United States saw in the 1950s under McCarthyism,” Dr. Muneera Fakhro, a leader of the left-leaning Wa’ad party, told a gathering of activists, reporters and policy heads at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) in Washington Tuesday.

Speaking via live teleconference from Bahrain, Fakhro, whose house has been attacked twice since the unrest began, mourned the loss of 30 lives, the nearly 500 Bahrainis behind bars, and the scores of people still missing.

“We need to stop such atrocities with the help of international organisations immediately,” she said.

Having dispatched a team of experts to Manama earlier this month, Amnesty International reported last week that Bahrain’s spiraling human rights crisis has reached a level of grave severity, and concluded with the imperative that Western governments – who were quick to safeguard the rights of protestors and revolutionary forces elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) – act fast to alleviate accusations of political selectivity and, worse, hypocrisy.

Middle class feels the heat

In its April 2011 Regional Economic Outlook for Middle East and Central Asia (MECA) report, the International Monetary Fund Wednesday expressed high hopes that Bahrain’s oil- exporting economy could easily expand by 4.9 percent this year.

Presenting the report in Dubai Tuesday, Masood Ahmed, director of the IMF’s MECA Department, said that in the long run, the uprisings could “boost the economies in the region by setting a more inclusive growth agenda, improving governance, and providing greater and more equal opportunity for its young and growing population.”

However, it is clear to most observers that unless the Bahraini regime bows to the most basic demands of its restive population, there is little possibility of stability or growth, particularly in light of the regime’s most recent bout of repression.

Since Al Khalifa’s forces stormed and razed the Pearl Roundabout – Bahrain’s equivalent of Cairo’s now-legendary Tahrir Square – the use of rubber bullets, tear gas, shotguns and sometimes live ammunition to crush opposition has largely waned in favour of arbitrary arrests, mass detentions, widespread blacklisting and broad persecution of anyone believed to be connected with the uprising.

Since the King declared an emergency State of National Safety (SNS) on Mar. 14, just as Saudi Arabia sent its troops across the causeway connecting the two countries, Bahraini civil society has been left exposed to a host of unchecked powers, including a system of special courts designed to try “enemies of the state”.

Human rights groups united in their denouncement of such draconian measures have noted a rapidly increased targeting of skilled workers and the middle classes – not only activists or unemployed youth but teachers, doctors, lawyers, businessmen, engineers, academics, editors and journalists have all been hauled in for questioning, detained, or monitored very closely by the regime’s security apparatus.

Mohammed Al Maskati, head of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, stressed Tuesday that the latest development – a spate of dismissals of over a thousand professionals holding high-ranking jobs – was an ill-omened sign that even the middle class would not be spared.

A representative of the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions (GFBTU) said last week that of the 1,200 people fired, over 920 of the dismissals were clearly politically driven, though spokespersons for the regime have insisted that the employees in question “weren’t following their rightful duties”.

According to the Washington Post, teachers have been dragged away in handcuffs in full view of their students, and those called in for questioning have endured ‘Orwellian’ experiences in police custody. Physicians for Human Rights documented the arrest of over 30 medical professionals and Amnesty International claimed that as of Apr. 12, the Ministry of Education had dismissed nearly 120 staff members.

“I would not compare this to McCarthyism, which was much more about public hounding. I think [what we are seeing in Bahrain] are old fashioned police tactics, which are far worse,” Gregory Gause, a professor of political science at the University of Vermont, told IPS.

“Maybe the ‘losing one’s job for one’s political beliefs’ is what brings on the McCarthy comparison, but it seems to me to go far beyond that. How many of McCarthy’s targets ended up in jail?” asked Gause, author of the recent book “The International Relations of the Persian Gulf“.

Meanwhile, workers’ rights watchdogs have stepped up their efforts to pressure Western governments to end the prevailing impunity and defend the human rights of Bahraini workers.

Richard Trumka, president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), wrote last week to Defence Secretary Robert Gates demanding “urgent political intervention…to stop [Bahrain’s] descent into dictatorship”, adding that Bahraini trade unions were essential for a healthy, pluralistic society.

Directing the spotlight on Bahrain as home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, Trumka insisted that the administration should call on its counterparts to end the “extraordinary repression taking place at the doorstep of one of America’s largest military installations.”

“Any lesser response to this crisis undermines our moral authority,” he concluded.

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