Thugs or Groupies? Highlighting Issues of Police Discrimination in Bahrain

In what was apparently a display of solidarity with Bahrain’s security forces, hundreds of pro-regime Sunnis ended up at Alba roundabout to protest against what the Ministry of Interior described as a ‘terrorist blast’ in the village of Al-Eker. The explosion, which injured 7 policeman, has already resulted in the arrest of 4 people following a dawn raid on the village.  Al-Wefaq reported that the sister of one of those arrested had her shoulder broken when security forces attacked the family during the raid.

Such reports of heavy-handed policing are of course commonplace in Bahrain, but to what extent are they selective, and to what extent are the security forces just an instrument used to prop up ‘Sunni hegemony’ in Bahrain (Strobl, 2011). Although the answer to that question is self evident for many, the events of last night and the past week provide a very good snapshot of how the police in Bahrain operate, for they illustrate how the MOI deal with crime when it is carried out by those who support the regime.

Firstly, despite the presence of hundreds of pro-regime supporters at a roundabout, the security forces seemed reluctant to commit the same excessive force they employ when dealing with anti-government protests. The video shows civilians overturning and smashing up the car of a man who reportedly honked ‘down with Hamad’. It is sometime before the security forces intervene, despite the considerable amount of time it would have taken to damage the car. This photo even shows a man standing on the upturned vehicle.

A number of people then proceeded to attack 24 Hour Supermarket, a property owned by Jawads Group, a company frequently targeted by some pro-regime elements after they were accused of giving out free food to those at the Pearl Roundabout. Indeed, this report from the 2nd April 2012 states that Jawads owned properties had suffered 54 attacks on their premises since March last year. Some of the attackers even appeared to have firearms.

Despite the damage done, reporter Mazen Mahdi (who was on scene) believed that the police handled the problems well, though he also stated that this was not how they normally dealt with protests. While it is important to remember that the police did intervene to disperse the crowd last night, the reporting of the incident on the MOI’s Twitter’s feed  is interesting, for it illuminates the discrepancy in how similar crimes perpetrated by different groups are reported. In both their Arabic and English tweets, they refused to call those who carried out the violence as vandals, terrorists, thugs, rioters or hooligans. Instead, they chose to call them ‘groups’.

You might argue that that seems reasonable, for why unfairly brand people with sensationalist terminology? Well, it is inconsistent. In the past week, a group who burned a bus were described as ‘thugs’, while those who set off a bomb were described as terrorists and  those who threw molotovs wee called ‘rioters’.  In short, sensationalist terminology is reserved for those who engage in activities deemed anti-government. Check the below sample

The term ‘groups’ usually seems to be reserved for legally sanctioned gatherings. Indeed, the MOI tend to deploy hyperbole with alarming gusto, and clearly they’ve missed a trick this time. Maybe I’m being a little unfair though, since this caption on the MOI’s website does use the term ‘vandals’.  One caption though…

Al-Eker and the Case of Ahmed Ismail

The recent attack that injured 7 policeman has caused a flurry of activity, including the arrest of 4 people and calls from MPs to arm policeman in Bahrain. A similar call was given back in January, when police complained that even the protesters had stronger tear gas than they did. (Read police as victims). Adel Flaifel, a man accused of torturing Bahrainis during the 90s, and whose history the Gulf Daily News merely describe as ‘controversial’, suggested that the tactics used by those who carried out the attack indicated that they had been trained in Lebanon or Iran.

While continued violence directed against police in the villages makes the idea of a bomb an entirely realistic possibility, the credibility of the MOI and the opacity of the events have naturally allowed room for conjecture. Some have expressed doubts about whether the  incident happened at all, whilst others have suggested it might have been a case of riot officers getting too close to an exploding gas cylinder, as happened in Bani Jamra a few nights ago.  As the video demonstrates,  the gas cylinder is burnt in the middle of the town. This marks a departure from the usual tactic of igniting in a deserted wasteland. It  is, however, perfectly possible that something similar happened in al-Eker (i.e. police go too close to a burning gas cylinder which subsequently exploded). Although this does not exonerate such a tactic, there is a world of different between Iran/Hezbollah trained insurgents detonating bombs and reckless endangerment leading to severe injuries. 

Given his fairly global views on the violence being carried out by some Bahrainis, it would be interesting to know Flaifel’s thoughts on the shooting of Ahmed Ismail, a protester who was shot and killed when a bullet fired from a ‘civilian’ car killed him. The bullet hit him in the thigh, a classic tactic used by insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan to ensure maximum lethality. MAYBE THE KILLERS TRAINED IN AFGHANISTAN.

What makes the case of Ahmed Ismail particularly interesting is that some believe it to have been carried out by a local militia. The handling of the case has also been very suspect, not least because there was no mention of the gunshot on the death certificate. Ahmed’s family are still refusing to collect the body until the death certificate has been amended.

Although the government acknowledge that he was shot, and have announced a murder investigation, the Public Prosecutor has defended the death certificate inaccuracy,  saying only the ‘physiological’ cause of death is included. Not only does this seem to go against usual practices of writing death certificates, but it also contradicts the BICI report, which makes frequent mentions to ‘gunshot injuries’  on death certificates (e.g. para 896,901,906 etc).

Even more alarming is how the MOI are reportedly dealing with the investigation. According to the family’s lawyer, five witnesses to the shooting have been threatened with torture and rape by the security forces. There are also question marks about whether the security forces have checked CCTV footage from the area of the shooting, and instead they appear to be more concerned with the video footage shot by the deceased.

This investigation is a far cry from the arrest of the ‘terror’ suspects in al-Eker. There certainly haven’t been any riot officers crashing through doors in dawn raids, breaking shoulders and quoting Sylvester Stalone-style one-liners.

There also seems to be little debate in Parliament about gun laws or gun crimes, even though the number of privately owned fire arms in Bahran is 180,000. Considering Bahrain’s population is about 1 million, that’s a lot of guns. In fact, it ranks as 18th in the world for the number of guns per 100 people. Many also raise question marks about who owns these guns, and some people have pointed to the existence of  a gun culture among many loyalists of the country’s ruling regime.


The difference between what happened at the Alba roundabout and what happened to Ahmed Ismail /in al-Eker are a stark reminder of continued problems within the country’s police force. These problems are not just indicative of poor training, but active and ongoing discrimination in the police system. Despite the regime’s attempts to paint such misconduct as the work of a few rotten apples, it is more like a ‘rotten orchard’ (Punch, 2003). To a large extent, deviant practices by the police are a systemic necessity, and are fundamental in ensuring the longevity of the existing order.  In other words, without police deviance (such as brutality) – the government in its current state would inevitably fall.

Given that the regime’s continued rule is highly dependent on  support from specific, predominantly Sunni groups, it is impossible to apply the law equally, for doing so runs the risk of angering those on whom their legitimacy is based. On the other hand, being excessively tough on youth and those who seek political change is also a source of legitimacy, as failure to be tough on crime can also threaten the credibility of the government. The problem here though is that it creates a ‘rule of law imbalance’, one in which excessive measures must be taken against one group (predominantly Shi’a), and concessions given to another (predominantly Sunni). This continued imbalance will simply exacerbate problems, for not only does it make a mockery of the rule of law, but it further draws attention to a huge problem with state violence, in that it is carried out by a predominantly Sunni-staffed security force who operate on behalf of a predominantly Sunni government whose key positions are occupied by members of the same family.


8 thoughts on “Thugs or Groupies? Highlighting Issues of Police Discrimination in Bahrain

  1. A very intersting article. You raised an issue that even while it was known and observed but you brought it up in a way that leaves no doubts esepicially with evidences.
    Thanx for sharing it , will keep follow your articles 😉

  2. I applaud you for your great journalistic work.
    The way you compare cases and incidents leaves no doubt to the sensible minded.
    You are a True Bahraini !

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