DUBAI (Reuters) - Bahrain has stepped up arrests of cyber activists and Shi’ites, with more than 300 detained and dozens missing since it launched a crackdown on pro-democracy protests, the opposition said on Thursday.
Earlier this month, the Gulf Arab island’s Sunni rulers imposed martial law and called in troops from fellow Sunni-ruled neighbors, including Saudi Arabia, to quell the protest movement led mostly by the state’s Shi’ite majority.
The severity of the crackdown, in which public gatherings are banned and security forces have been deployed at checkpoints, stunned Bahrain’s Shi’ites and angered the region’s non-Arab Shi’ite power Iran.
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states fearful of rising Iranian influence see Bahrain as a red line among the popular uprisings that have swept the region since January.
Some members of the opposition saw the arrests as a move by the authorities to cement gains against them after the crackdown, in which forces razed Manama’s Pearl Square where demonstrators had camped out and tore down its central statue.
“The government says it is taking steps to ensure stability and security, but what’s happening is the exact opposite. We’re in one of the most dangerous stages, where citizens have no security,” said Mattar Ibrahim Mattar, a member of the country’s largest Shi’ite opposition group Wefaq.
“They’re being arrested and kidnapped at checkpoints that are all over Bahrain. The checkpoints are a place of fear.”
Activists and politicians say a growing number of reform campaigners are going into hiding.
“The situation is critical ... Almost all the bloggers and activists who aren’t in jail are now in hiding,” said Nabeel Rajab, head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.
“They raided 15 houses in my neighborhood last night but they only got two people, so I assume the rest are hiding.”
Mattar said Wefaq had counted 302 arrests by Wednesday but believed the number would reach 400 soon.
Bahrain’s government said this week it was still committed to dialogue but security must be restored first after weeks of unrest.
Proposals put forward by the crown prince included an elected government and reform of electoral districts, which the opposition says are gerrymandered to ensure a Sunni majority in parliament. Talks stalled over the terms of dialogue before the crackdown began on March 16.
Sunni supporters of the government say reforms launched by King Hamad bin Isa a decade ago have resulted a level of freedom and democracy unique in the Gulf region.
Activists and opposition politicians said the campaign of arrests took a chilling turn with the arrest of the prominent blogger Mahmood al-Yousif on Wednesday.
Yousif, who for years has promoted an anti-sectarianism under the slogan “No Shi’ite, No Sunni, Just Bahraini,” is believed to have been arrested in the early hours.
His wife, Frances Irvine, said she arrived home from a trip to find her husband missing, as well as his computer, phone cassettes and tapes of family holidays.
“He phoned us at 10 a.m. to tell our son he was being held ‘as a guest’ and was okay. I don’t know what that means, and I have had no other contact. We have no idea where he is.”
Yousif was considered a liberal who criticized the Sunni rulers for the lack of reform but also chided Wefaq for not moving more quickly to talks with the government.
More than 60 percent of Bahrainis are Shi’ites and most want a constitutional monarchy. Demands by hardliners for the overthrow of the monarchy have alarmed minority Sunnis.
Jasim Husain of Wefaq said talks with the government could still take place but the government needed to act quickly if it wanted to save Bahrain’s role as a financial center.
“The more we delay, the more it helps our competitors. We cannot afford to wait.”
Editing by Andrew Dobbie