MANAMA, Bahrain, (AP) – Far from noisy political rallies, the real essence of Saturday’s elections in Bahrain for many lies inside a modest law office where bookcases are stuffed with files of suspected Shiite dissidents who have been detained by the country’s Western-backed rulers.
Each case — says attorney Mohamed al-Tajer — symbolizes the tensions and suspicions flowing through the tiny Gulf kingdom between Shiite activists seeking a greater political voice and Sunni authorities saying they are safeguarding the nation, which includes the home port of the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet.
“I’m very worried for the future of this country,” al-Tajer said Thursday in an interview. “This is not a healthy environment at all.”
Al-Tajer — a journalist-turned-lawyer — is leading the defense team for 23 Shiites accused of plotting to overthrow Bahrain’s Sunni dynasty. The trial is scheduled to begin five days after Saturday’s election to pick a new 40-member parliament — and serves as a backdrop for nearly every political message in recent weeks.
In many ways, the balloting has become a referendum on a two-month crackdown against alleged dissent that has left more than 250 people jailed, muzzled bloggers and liberal media outlets and brought denunciations from international rights groups.
A large number of Shiites see the government’s blows as affirmation they will never climb out of a perceived second-class status despite being the majority. The Sunni rulers, meanwhile, claim they are holding the line against threats that could tip the island kingdom into chaos and open the door for Shiite power Iran to exert influence in one of America’s critical Gulf allies.
It has pushed U.S. diplomats into rapid-reaction mode.
High-level meetings with Bahrain’s leaders have occurred almost daily since the arrests began in August. The contacts have intensified in recent weeks, including a visit by U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary Janet A. Sanderson who showed Washington’s careful line on Bahrain with restrained comments on the crackdown.
American officials are pressing Bahrain’s Sunni authorities — but not too forcefully — to be mindful of world opinion and try to cool down the tensions.
The U.S. big picture in Bahrain has some important elements. The Americans don’t want to upset one of the few Gulf states to give voters a taste of democracy. Washington also has a deep interest to stay in synch with Gulf Sunni leaders, who are united in worry about Iran’s growing clout and are showing it by buying American arms.
On Wednesday, Congress received notice of plans to sell up to $60 billion in warplanes and other advanced weaponry to Saudi Arabia in one of the largest-ever single U.S. arms sales.
Some Shiite leaders in Bahrain also have called for a boycott of the election in protest of the harsh government tactics, which some activists claim includes torture and forced confessions. But large political rallies suggest a bid by Shiites to boost their 17 seats and try to claim control of the parliament — which has some lawmaking powers but is still answerable to the Sunni rulers led by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.
More than 30,000 people gathered until early Thursday to support the largest Shiite group in Bahrain, Al Wefaq, which has led accusations of corruption and power abuse against the Sunni leadership.
“The government needs to change its behavior,” the bloc’s leader, Sheik Ali Salman, told the crowd. “Leaving things unresolved will not serve stability in our society.”
Shortly after the crackdowns began in August — with the arrest of prominent Shiite activists — Salman said it “destroyed 10 years of progress” in Sunni-Shiite relations in Bahrain after the last sectarian unrest in the 1990s.
Shiite youths responded with street riots, including setting up barricades of burning tires. Authorities then stepped up the backlash by sweeping away the leadership of a respected human rights society and closing down some bloggers and other media outlets.
“What we are seeing in Bahrain these days is a return to full-blown authoritarianism,” Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement Wednesday. “The government has taken over associations and shut down media it doesn’t like to silence the loudest critics and intimidate the rest, and Washington says nothing publicly.”
But for many Bahrainis, the upcoming trial of the 23 Shiite activists could be a defining moment in relations between Shiites and Sunnis in a nation of about 530,000 citizens no bigger in area then New York City.
Authorities have aggressively pushed their claims that the men are linked to a “terror network” aiming to bring down the ruling system. Details, however, have not been made public — including whether Bahrain’s leaders will try to implicate Iran.
The group includes prominent rights activist Abdul-Jalil al-Singace, who was taken into custody Aug. 13 as he returned from London with his family. The other alleged coup plotters range from professors, taxi drivers and a dentist — all facing possible life sentences if convicted.
In his office — above a restaurant on a side street in Bahrain’s capital, Manama — al-Tajer has stacks of files on al-Singace and 14 other suspects he will directly defend. He’s also helping in the overall defense strategy, which will include trying to challenge the constitutionality of Bahrain’s anti-terrorism laws.
Al-Tajer, a Shiite, also alleges some clients have been subject to abuse behind bars, including being bound and hanged by their legs.
He has taken on about 300 cases of people detained by Bahraini officials in recent years. But he says the pressure from authorities is extreme with the upcoming trial.
“Of course I’m worried about being arrested or something happening to me. That’s natural under the current tensions,” he said. “When I decided to study law, I never thought of being a lawyer for the opposition. But I was motivated by what I have seen. This country has little justice now. It needs to see that.”