In mid February 2011, pro-democracy activists in the Gulf state of Bahrain took to the streets of the capital Manama in an attempt to win the kind of dramatic results achieved by their counterparts in Egypt and Tunisia. At first the demands of this predominantly Shia-led group were for constitutional reform and a reduction of the powers of King Hamad and the ruling Sunni al-Khalifa dynasty. But opinion soon hardened into calls for the end of the monarchy when seven demonstrators were killed during a police action at Manama's Pearl Roundabout.

After a month of continued protests, Bahrain's government invited some 1,500 troops from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to enter the country in support of local security forces before imposing martial law and instituting a fierce crackdown. Hundreds of activists were arrested; many were beaten and tortured in detention. Medical staff at the island's main Salmaniyya Hospital, where many injured protestors were treated and where demonstrators gathered after Peal Roundabout was cleared, were also targeted for arrests - and many of them subsequently received long prison sentences for their alleged complicity in plots to overthrow the government. 

In November last year, the government was forced to acknowledge that its security forces had used unnecessary force against mostly unarmed civilians. A commission of inquiry, established by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, but led by respected international human rights lawyer Cherif Bassiouini, reported in November and documented widespread abuses by the security services - routine torture, arbitrary arrests, detainees held incommunicado for weeks, unfair trials and people dismissed from their jobs without cause. Since then a further commission has been set up to institute some of the inquiry's recommendations - though critics say that so far little has been achieved.

'We are going to teach you a lesson'

The first few weeks of this extraordinary drama were covered by People & Power's Bahrain: Fighting for Change, which filmed with activists in the early stages of the protest. But within days of the film being shown in March 2011 all of the central characters it featured had been detained or forced into hiding. Now, one year later, we have returned to Bahrain to find out what happened to them and to assess the current state of the opposition to the al-Khalifa dynasty.

One of the activists was a young trainee engineer, Sayed Ahmed. He was arrested at a checkpoint at the height of the crackdown. Though initially he was told he would be quickly released, his plight became more serious when police learned of his appearance in the Al Jazeera film. "I was handcuffed and blindfolded," he said. "Badly beaten on my face and body. I was in so much fear." He would be held in prison for the next six months, until his release in December. 

Another activist, Dr Nada Dhaif, who had served as a medical volunteer in a tent at Pearl Roundabout was also arrested. At the start of the protests she had been full of optimism, inspired by the 'Arab Spring' and believing that change was coming to Bahrain. "This is our golden chance," she said in February 2011. "Either we grab it now or never!" But that optimism faded when police came to her home in the middle of the night. "It was 19th March around 3am. They raided my house, came into my bedroom, two dozen masked men. It was horrible. You are coming with us, they said. We are going to teach you a lesson."

Handcuffed and bundled into a car, Nada was driven into custody where she says she was tortured. "I was electrocuted at the first session. It came out of nowhere. They put a device on my face. My head felt like it was going to blow off." Alongside doctors from Salmaniyya Hospital she was later convicted at an emergency tribunal of plotting to overthrow the state. She describes the case against her as a sham. "The only evidence against me was my confession. That was taken from me under torture. I signed lots of papers while I was blindfolded. Beaten, threatened; threatened that my family would be arrested. Wouldn't you just sign those papers and be finished with it?"

Sentenced to 15 years in prison for a crime she is adamant she did not commit, Nada is now out on bail pending an appeal. She says she knows the identity of at least one of her torturers and she spends her time writing to the authorities trying to get some redress and an apology. So far she has had little luck: "I don’t think they care about their reputation any more."

The struggle goes on

For the February 14 movement at large the struggle goes on. With Bahrain's major opposition parties effectively marginalised during the crackdown, the movement became the main focus for popular dissatisfaction with the al-Khalifa dynasty. In recent weeks, as the anniversary of the uprising (reflected in February 14th's name) drew near, activists were again back on the streets demanding change, in some case violently. Last month King Hamad instituted some modest constitutional reforms, but judging from the massive police presence in Manama this week few doubt the matter will be settled any time soon.

As Bahrain's justice minister Khalid bi Ali al-Khalifa told People & Power recently: "Security of people is the main concern. We know exactly that the use of molotovs and blocking of roads will lead to more aggravating circumstances." 

But for Sayed Ahmed and other activists, the hope inspired by last year's events still shines brightly. Driving around Manama a few weeks ago he passed the spot where the iconic Pearl Monument used to stand. A focus for protestors, it was demolished during the crackdown.

"Look what they've done to it," he said. "But it will be built again when we win. They can destroy that but not the freedom in our hearts."

Watch Bahrain: Fighting for change

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Source: Al Jazeera