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Bahrain to citizens living abroad: Spy on countrymen, no protests permitted

Bahrainis living abroad have been ordered to spy on their countrymen in the wake of a deadly crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators. Msnbc.com's F. Brinley Bruton reports.
Image: Anti-government demonstrators rally as they re-occupy Pearl roundabout on February 19 in Manama, Bahrain
Anti-government demonstrators re-occupied iconic Pearl Roundabout in Manama, Bahrain, on February 19. Their demands for political freedoms and greater rights were inspired by uprisings elsewhere in the Middle East.John Moore / Getty Images, file
/ Source: msnbc.com

Bahrainis living abroad have been ordered to spy on their countrymen in the wake of a deadly crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators.

Documents containing "loyalty pledges" — which also require expats to promise they will not protest against the tiny Gulf state's government — have been sent to students attending university in the U.K.

Some Bahrainis told msnbc.com that they feel abandoned by Western leaders in the face of an alleged campaign of intimidation that extends far beyond the country's borders.

At least 31 people have been killed during anti-government unrest in Bahrain since February amid demands for political freedoms and greater rights.

More than 1,000 people remain detained. Dozens of doctors and nurses who helped protesters are among those facing trials in the kingdom, which is home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet.

Bahrainis who receive funding to study abroad have been ordered to sign the pledges, which instruct expats to inform on fellow citizens.

"In the event that other students are not fulfilling their loyalty … it is my responsibility and duty to report them," one document obtained by msnbc.com reads.

Recipients of the memo also must vow not to compromise Bahrain's reputation "through the use of social media, public demonstrations or any other manner."

'Embracing tyrants'
Abdul, a student who is now based in the U.K., cited the pledges as an example of the kingdom's attempts to intimidate its citizens — even those living thousands of miles away from their homeland. He said many students feared that their scholarships will be axed if they don't comply.

Abdul, who asked that his real name not be used to protect family members who are still in Bahrain, said he is angry at the U.S. and Britain for not doing more to help his country's pro-democracy movement.

"We see them embracing tyrants," Abdul told msnbc.com. "They actually invite people from the Bahraini government to come and visit. In effect, we feel that even here we are not safe."

The families of some expats who were pictured at a pro-democracy protest in England were harassed, some Bahrainis alleged.

An estimated 5 percent of the kingdom's workforce has been fired or suspended for taking part in protests, according to the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights. The kingdom has a population of around 525,000.

Bahrain has long been a reliable Western ally in the Persian Gulf.

Many members of Bahrain's elite studied in the U.K. King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa attended the University of Cambridge and trained with the British army.

Wedding invitation
Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, who received degrees from Washington's American University and Cambridge, was on the guest list for Prince William's wedding to Catherine Middleton in April. He declined to attend but the fact he was invited despite the bloody crackdown sparked controversy in the U.K. The crown prince also met with President Barack Obama at the White House in June.

Hundreds of thousands of mostly Shiite Bahrainis took to the streets in February to demand an end the Sunni minority's hold on power. The country's Shiites, who make up around 70 percent of the population, complain of pervasive discrimination and say they are barred from top jobs in the government, army and police.

Centered on the iconic Pearl Roundabout in the capital Manama, the protests were initially peaceful.

But with the help of Saudi Arabia and other neighbors, the Sunni-led government later launched a crackdown. They used live rounds to quell demonstrations, demolished an encampment and rounded up opposition party members.

On June 22, a special military court sentenced eight people to life in prison for allegedly trying to overthrow the government. Among them was Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, a prominent human-rights activist.

A lawyer told The Associated Press on Thursday that Bahrain had stopped putting protesters on trial before the tribunals with military prosecutors.

Human Rights Watch had previously called the trials a "travesty of justice."

"Most defendants hauled before Bahrain's special military court are facing blatantly political charges, and trials are unfair," said Joe Stork, the group's deputy Middle East director.

Reconciliation talks are scheduled to begin on Saturday.

'State of chaos'
The Associated Press reported Wednesday that King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa announced the creation of an independent commission that will investigate allegations that protesters' rights were violated during the crackdown.

The king said Bahrain is committed to reform and respecting human rights. But he accused the protesters of pushing the country into a "state of chaos" with street marches and sit-ins.

Dr. Salah Al Bander, a former adviser to Bahrain's royal family who left the country in 2006 after exposing documents that opposition activists say show plans to systematically sideline Shiites, said Britain should leverage its long and close relationship with the Bahraini establishment to support the country's activists.

"Definitely Britain could do more, not only by putting pressure on the royal family, but by protecting students here,” said Al Bander, who is now in the U.K.

epa02741872 British Prime Minister David Cameron (L) welcomes the Crown Prince of Bahrain Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa to 10 Downing Street in London, Britain, 19 May 2011. EPA/ANDY RAINAndy Rain / EPA

Around 1,200 Saudi Arabian National Guard troops were deployed to Bahrain in March as part of an intervention by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). It later emerged that the security force had been trained by the British.

"In training the Saudi troops, we're protecting the Bahraini regime," said Jonathan Edwards, a British parliamentarian whose questions revealed details of the training program.

"It is very difficult to be portraying ourselves diplomatically as … promoting democracies and bringing down tyrannical regimes, and then be responsible for propping them up," added Edwards, a lawmaker with the Welsh nationalist Plaid Cymru party.

Britain is Saudi Arabia's second-largest foreign investor after the U.S., and Saudi Arabia is the U.K.'s biggest trading partner in the Middle East.

Gerd Nonneman, a professor of Gulf studies at Britain's University of Exeter, said the West was taken by surprise at the speed and severity of the Saudi-backed crackdown on largely peaceful protests.

The key to Saudi Arabia's involvement in Bahrain — a 16-mile causeway separates the two kingdoms — is concern that Shiite Iran will gain a foothold there, he said.

"(Saudi Arabia's fear) is more paranoia than factually based," Nonneman added.

The Saudi leadership appears to feel threatened by pro-democracy movements throughout the region, seeing them as an "an existential crisis," according to Charles Dunne, a former American diplomat who also worked with the National Security Council and Pentagon.

"That is a limiting factor in how much advice is taken (on Bahrain)," said Dunne, who is now a senior program manager at pro-democracy NGO Freedom House.

Some Bahrainis still wonder why the U.K. and U.S. haven't done to aid the country's pro-democracy movement following the violent crackdown that has left many dead, imprisoned or exiled.

Ali, 28, said he fled his country in May after his boss at a bank was shown a picture of him at a protest. Within 10 minutes he was fired, he says.

"I felt that this was the end, that they were going to arrest me like they did with the other guys, that they would beat me until I was killed,” said Ali, who asked to be identified by his first name only to protect relatives in Bahrain. "I had to escape."

He traveled through the region for weeks before finally arriving in the U.K. in the beginning of June. Ali, who has been joined by his wife and three-year-old son, is applying for asylum in Britain.

Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth office is aware of "allegations about the Bahraini government's actions towards some Bahraini students studying in the United Kingdom," a spokeswoman told msnbc.com.

"Our ambassador in Bahrain raised the issue with the Bahraini minister of justice on May 4, saying it was wrong for students to be punished for exercising a right to peaceful demonstration," she said.

Bahrain's Embassy in London did not respond to numerous requests for comment. Staff at the foreign ministry in Bahrain would not comment and directed msnbc.com to the London Embassy.