Activists In Bahrain Lay Low After Crackdown

For the past two and a half months, the government of Bahrain has brutally targeted opposition figures who led massive anti-government protests in February and March. Human rights groups say the government has now ruled it a crime to be against the government.

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And in Bahrain, it's opposition activists who are laying low. The government there has cracked down harshly on opposition figures who led massive anti-government protests in February and March. Few foreign journalists have been allowed into the country since the crackdown began.

NPR's Kelly McEvers recently spent time there, and she sent this report on a village that's been at the center of the opposition.

KELLY MCEVERS: To spend time in the village of Sitra is to understand how Bahrain's crackdown has unfolded over the past two and a half months. Our guide is Aziz, a young professional who lives in Sitra with his family. We can't give his last name. He says every family here has a story to tell.

AZIZ: Yeah, one of my relative killed in the beginning of the unrest in Bahrain. The police chased them and they shot him. He got shot in his kidney.

MCEVERS: The man was killed in February when the protests first started.

Hundreds of thousands of people had converged on a place called the Pearl Roundabout, demanding not the fall of Bahrain's royal family but reforms to the system. Security forces used rubber bullets and live fire on protestors. A handful of people were killed in those first days.

The government leaders said protestors were involved in a violent plot to overthrow the state. Martial law was imposed. Troops and tanks from Saudi Arabia and the Emirates rolled into Bahrain and the monument at Pearl Roundabout was demolished. Thousands of people were detained.

Four of them, including another of Aziz's relatives, died in custody. He was shot in the leg while protesting in Sitra. Then police detained him when he was in the hospital.

AZIZ: He disappeared(ph) one day and then after that day I received his body. And he's been also tortured to death.

MCEVERS: Human rights groups say the government has now ruled it a crime to be against the government. The detained include doctors who treated protestors and scores of professionals who simply attended rallies. The detained also include two elected members of parliament. They haven't been heard from since masked men whisked them away in the night.

Most of the protestors are Shiites. They are the majority in Bahrain. They believe they're discriminated against by the Sunni ruling family. Aziz says the crackdown has given rise to angry anti-Shiite groups, men who give speeches holding swords and calling Shiites things like traitors and enemies of the state.

AZIZ: We just discovered that our problem here was not only the government, with the radicals and these who refuses to be shared in power. And they think Shia must be, should be almost a second class.

MCEVERS: Aziz and I head out for a drive. He shows me what's been happening to Shiite houses of worship.

AZIZ: There used to be a mosque here. It has been destroyed by the government.

MCEVERS: There's nothing there.

AZIZ: Yeah. It was completely destroyed.

MCEVERS: Opposition groups say at least 43 Shiite mosques have been demolished in Bahrain since the crackdown began. Some officials say the mosques were illegally built. Others say they were properly registered.

Sitra is a poor Shiite village that was the scene of protests long before this year's uprising. Now authorities regularly close off the village with checkpoints. This night a convoy of land cruisers speeds into town.

Ah, here they come, yeah. That's a convoy - one, two, three, four, five.

AZIZ: Yeah, that's right.

MCEVERS: And one's got like a spotlight on his car.

These days, people in Sitra are too afraid to come out and protest in groups. So instead, every night at 10 o'clock, they stand on their rooftops and shout God is great.

(Soundbite of people shouting)

MCEVERS: So I'm standing on the street. All the lights are out. It's after 10 o'clock and you can just see silhouettes of men and boys standing on their rooftops just saying Allah u Akbar.

Later, police fire tear gas canisters at the men and boys.

The government has promised to end martial law in the coming days. No one is exactly sure what that means. Aziz says for him it means more protests, despite the deaths and detentions. What do we have to lose now, he says? How else can we get our rights?

Kelly McEvers, NPR News.

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