CNN arrests expose crackdown in Bahrain
April 11, 2011 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Manama, Bahrain (CNN) -- We were standing outside a home in the village of Bani Jamrah when 20 heavily-armed men jumped from military vehicles and surrounded us. Their faces covered with black ski masks, they pointed machine guns at us and demanded we get on the ground.
- CNN crew detained while filming in Bahrain; human rights organizer who spoke to CNN now under investigation
- In the past three weeks, more than 460 people have been detained
- CNN filmed crackdown in villlages surrounding the capital, Manama
- The wounded are too scared to go to hospital where security forces may identify them
We were in Bahrain for a documentary focusing on bloggers and internet activists at the center of revolutions and demonstrations across the Middle East but we were now seeing the crackdown in Bahrain first hand.
Entering Bahrain, we were immediately struck by an eerie and uneasy silence. A strict curfew was in place as checkpoints, tanks and military vehicles choked many of the roads.
At first we saw few signs of the massive protests which had nearly shut down the capital weeks earlier, but we would soon find the unrest in Bahrain has not ended. It has just been silenced under a harsh government crackdown.
Sources warned us our phones and email were likely being monitored. Even more disturbing, many of the people who had agreed to talk to us had been arrested or gone into hiding after security forces raided their homes and threatened them, according to family members or others close to them. Their alleged crime? Speaking out against the government, we were told.
The numbers are striking. According to the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, in the past three weeks, more than 460 people have been detained, and another 30 are missing.
Rights groups accuse Bahrain of abuses
Bahrain destroys Pearl Monument
It's really a humanitarian crisis we are going through now
--Nabeel Rajab, human rights organizer
--Nabeel Rajab, human rights organizer
Outlying villages resembled a war zone, with the names of civilians killed written in graffiti on the walls. Walking down a narrow alley we smelled tear gas that had only just been thrown toward a group of unarmed young boys chanting "Allahu Akbar" (God is Great.)
The gas felt like someone squirted lemon into your eyes; it was hard to breathe. Empty tear gas canisters from previous incidents littered the streets.
Human rights activists say security forces have been firing birdshot into neighborhoods daily, often striking unarmed civilians. In the space of a few hours, we heard shots fired in two different villages.
We met men who had been shot with scores of pellets. One man, whose name we have chosen not to reveal, used a razor to cut about 40 pellets from under his skin. He told us he went to the hospital first but riot police beat him in his bed. When the military took over the hospital last month, he left and was too scared to return.
The pellets are supposedly less lethal than bullets, but they can be deadly if they become infected or enter organs.
We met a young boy who had been hit in the leg with a flash-bang grenade. He had two large welts on his legs, one which had opened into an ugly laceration. He was being cared for by his father, who was also afraid to visit a hospital.
"That is very difficult," said Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. "It's the most difficult thing we've faced. You have people wounded everyday and you don't know how to deal with them. You don't know where to take them ... It's really a humanitarian crisis we are going through now."
Even ambulance drivers say they've become targets. We met one who told us police opened fire on his vehicle when he tried to assist injured demonstrators and then beat him up, breaking his leg.
Shortly after meeting these injured civilians we had our own encounter with Bahrain's military police.
When we arrived at Rajab's home, police helicopters were hovering low overhead and suddenly six military vehicles and regular trucks drove up.
Twenty men in black ski masks surrounded our CNN team and Rajab. As the men came up to us we tried to film with a flip-cam. They immediately grabbed the camera and deleted all the images they could find.
The masked men forced us to get on the ground at gunpoint. Rajab was pushed up against a car with his hands up. The gunmen would not show us any identification to verify who they worked for.
We were taken to a local police station in Boudaiya, where we saw four people facing a wall wearing blindfolds and handcuffs.
Then we were moved to another station, in Hamad Town, where we were interrogated as a group and individually. The questions ranged from why we were in Bahrain and what we were filming, to far more personal questions, such as our religion and details about our families.
We were also told we had to sign a document, written in Arabic, supposedly agreeing to only film and ask about social media and Facebook. We refused.
We were never hurt or mistreated, though we were accused of being liars, of having fraudulent passports, and being in the country without permission, none of which were true. After about six hours we were released when officials from the Ministry of Information came for us.
The next morning newspapers prominently featured an account of our arrest, quoting Information Ministry officials, which was completely inaccurate. It charged that we had been working without proper identification, when in fact we had both our CNN identification and passports with us.
Over the weekend, we learned that Rajab was referred to the military for prosecution for publishing pictures on Facebook of a man who died in police custody, whose body appeared to show signs of torture. The Bahraini government says the images were fabricated.
After our arrest, Bahraini government minders were attached to our team at all times. We were forbidden to film tanks or military, or the Pearl Square roundabout. Instead our government minders took us to a local shopping mall.
We were warned by government officials not to press any further, or we would be arrested again. An official with the Ministry of Information told us "this time we might not be able to get you free again."
We asked Bahrain's Foreign Minister, Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed bin Mohammed Al Khalifa, about the violence against protesters. He told us the demonstrations had quickly led the country to "the brink" and that calling in the military had been necessary to restore stability and safety.
"Our economy came to the brink of collapse," Sheikh Khalid said. "So we had no choice but to protect the interests of our country... from collapse, from total collapse internally. And from external threats. We all know where we are. We all know who threatened us and called on the people to rise up."
When asked who he referred to, Sheikh Khalid said "Iran, of course."
His claim was echoed in a Ministry of Information press handout. It explained that over-laying the entire situation in Bahrain is the sectarian struggle between Sunnis and Shias. The monarchy is Sunni and rules over a majority Shia population. The government packet blamed Iran, which is Shia, for instigating demonstrations and unrest. The government accused the activists of doctoring photos and fabricating injuries as part of the protesters' efforts to court international sympathy for the demonstrations.
Sheikh Khalid told us that security forces are not shooting into neighborhoods or firing on unarmed civilians. He said "the police would not walk into a neighborhood and start shooting people."
We asked Sheikh Khalid about those detained and missing. "There were many who I know personally who have been called in for questioning and arrested - but was for short period of time for questioning. ... but I didn't hear of any of them being harmed in any way -- just for blogging or being activists."
Sheikh Khalid also said the overall situation in the country is calming down. But we saw people hiding in their homes and heard gunshots in broad daylight. It appeared to us as though security forces have simply contained the unrest in the villages, making it invisible to the rest of the world.