Reporting from Beirut — When Nabeel Rajab saw his picture splashed on the front pages of a state-run newspaper over the weekend as an alleged member of a terrorist network plotting to overthrow the government, he knew it was time to start packing. The prominent Bahraini human rights activist sent his children away and put toothpaste and shampoo into a small bag in anticipation of his arrest.
"I've kept the children out of our home for the past four days," he told The Times by telephone on Monday. "I don't want to be beaten in front of them."
Rajab was among dozens of Shiite Muslims, including already-jailed opposition leader Abdul Jalil Singace, who were accused this weekend of taking part in a foreign-backed plot to overthrow the country's Sunni Muslim monarchy.
Singace and seven other prominent Shiite opposition figures and human rights activists were arrested in mid-August. Others picked up in recent security sweeps included taxi drivers, academics and civil servants. At least 23 people were arrested over the weekend and accused of being part of a terrorist network.
Bahrain hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, which patrols the Persian Gulf. The country's minority Sunni population dominates the majority Shiites in a divisive political conflict with regional overtones. Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia backs the monarchy while Iran, with its Shiite majority, considers itself the patron of the kingdom's Shiites.
Bahrain's king, Sheik Hamed ibn Isa Khalifa, on Sunday delivered a harsh condemnation of the alleged plotters, many of them longtime activists who returned from exile over the last decade during a now-tattered reform era.
"They took the pardons granted over previous illegal activities and abuses as evidence that they were above the law, and they continued to train themselves and others on all types of vandalism," the king alleged. "It saddens us that they are wrong and away from righteousness."
The arrests and accusations come as the Persian Gulf Arab kingdom is gearing up for Oct. 23 parliamentary elections. Shiites hold 17 of 40 seats, and Sunnis fear they could gain a majority. Human rights organizations estimate that more than 250 Shiites, mostly youths, have been arrested in the ongoing security crackdown, which has sparked unrest in the streets.
Bahrain and its Saudi patrons may fear that Iran could use the island nation's Shiites during the upcoming elections to further its influence, analysts said. Riad Kahwaji, head of the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, said Gulf Arab countries fear that Iran could use some of the members of the Shiite communities in these countries as cells for sabotage or espionage.
"In Bahrain it takes different dimensions since Shiites are a majority there and could pose [a] serious threat to the regime," he said. "They want to make an example … sending out a message to other possible players that you will be uncovered."
Rajab said he and his wife have been waiting at their home in Bahrain for him to be picked up by law enforcement since the local media started naming him as a member of the alleged terrorist ring. Sunday's edition of the Bahrain-based English newspaper Gulf Daily News published an article headlined "Terrorism Network is Broken" in which Rajab was named and pictured as a "supporter" of what prosecutors are describing as a "sophisticated terrorist network operating with international support."
But as of Monday evening no one had shown up to arrest Rajab, who is the Bahraini representative of several international human rights organizations and travels frequently to Europe.
The official Bahrain News Agency reported on Monday that prominent Bahraini blogger Ali Abdulemam, administrator of BahrainOnline.org, had been arrested on suspicion of belonging to the alleged network.
Sandels is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Borzou Daragahi contributed to this report.