U.S. Diplomats Urge Bahrain To Talk To Protesters

The Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain is ruled by a 200-year-old Sunni dynasty. Bahrain's majority Shiite population has been largely excluded from top government jobs and now wants change. PBS NewsHour reporter Margaret Warner talks to Renee Montagne about the crack down on protesters.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

For three months now, the government of Bahrain has been cracking down on protestors. Inspired by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, the country's Shiite majority, along with some Sunnis, have been demanding major reforms. The response from the kingdom has been harsh and the country is now under a state of emergency. Margaret Warner of "PBS NewsHour" is in Bahrain and joined us from the capital Manama.

Thank you for joining us.

Ms. MARGARET WARNER (Correspondent, "PBS NewsHour"): My pleasure, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, you've been reporting out of Bahrain for a number of days now. Just first of all, what are you seeing?

Ms. WARNER: I'm seeing a modern city in which people are going to work, construction projects appear to be underway, but you also see all kinds of military and security on the streets. You never know when you'll be pulled over at a checkpoint.

MONTAGNE: And I think it's always important when speaking about Bahrain, as we have over these last weeks and months, to remember that it is of great importance to the U.S. The fifth fleet is based there. And U.S. diplomats met with government officials in Bahrain this week. You talked to a couple of the top ministers who were in that meeting. What can you tell us about what the government is thinking?

Ms. WARNER: First, Renee, I can tell you what the U.S. diplomats came here to say, which was to urge the royal family to stop the arbitrary or at least warrantless detentions that people say they're being, and are being, subjected to, and also to urge the rulers here to pursue a dialogue with the opposition.

However, if you talk to members of the ruling family, they're emphasizing the support they feel they're getting from the United States. And when I asked the foreign minister what was his reaction to this idea of a dialogue with the opposition, he made it very clear that in fact the government has no intention of resuming their offer for direct dialogue.

MONTAGNE: Now, the U.S. then is being portrayed in Bahrain as a great ally, and yet of course in its crackdown of protestors the government has killed dozens of them, hundreds have been arrested, including opposition leaders who've been put on trial. What do you know of their fate?

Ms. WARNER: Well, there's a really small class of people who've actually been put on trial. But then you have a whole 'nother class of people who are in this detention. And the way they describe it is it's a kind of Kafkaesque nightmare in which they're brought in, they have great trouble reaching their families, there are no real charges. And many of them say they are beaten into making false confessions. And there are still, U.S. officials believe, about 400 -between 400 and 500 people in that kind of detention.

MONTAGNE: Is it your sense, though, that this treatment, this tough cracking down on opposition protestors, is it your sense that the uprising in Bahrain has been put down?

Ms. WARNER: Large scale protests are certainly not visible. You do have flash protests, as they call them, in the villages, in which a handful of usually young men will do something provocative to the police and there'll be a brief encounter. But the large scale protests are definitely at least subdued for now.

The real test is going to come June 1, when the king has announced that the state of emergency will be lifted. At that point the military will disappear from the streets.

And last night I pressed the foreign minister on, well, what else would it mean. Would it mean that the other extraordinary measures, such as night raids on people's homes, would end or these kind of warrantless detentions? He would not guarantee that at all.

The U.S. keeps arguing to the Bahrainis that the solution to this is not a security solution. They're going to have to have dialogue. However, the ruling family is now saying the only place they're going to have dialogue is only through the parliament, which their own supporters control.

MONTAGNE: Margaret, thank you very much.

Ms. WARNER: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Margaret Warner, senior correspondent for "PBS NewsHour," speaking to us from Manama, the capital of Bahrain.

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