Sayed Hashim Saeed was 15 years, nine months and six days old the day he died. Two years on, his father remembers every detail. It was New Year’s Eve 2011, and the family was visiting Sayed Hashim’s grandparents in a suburb of Bahrain’s Hamad City. At 5pm, the high-school freshman slipped out of the house and joined a nearby pro-democracy protest.
“There was a sit-in in the street. They just sat in front of the houses, it was peaceful,” said his father, Sayed Saeed. “Then the security forces came in with vans. Of course, Sayed Hashim ran away. So they chased him.”
Armed officers in dark uniforms and white helmets pursued him down the narrow alleys. When they got a clear shot, they fired a teargas canister directly at his upper body. It hit him in the neck and knocked him to the floor. As he lay there, they fired another round, which caught in his clothes and caused a huge burn across his chest.
“The other guys tried to save him, but the police fired more rounds, so the gas became thick around him. The gas had overcome him. He couldn’t get up,” said his father. By the time he made it to hospital, Sayed Hashim was dead.
He was one of at least 39 Bahrainis killed by teargas canisters since the start of an Arab Spring-inspired uprising in the tiny Gulf kingdom, an island with the population of San Diego. Bahrain has seen daily street protests and brutal police violence since February 2011, when security forces used force to break up a peaceful sit-in at the Pearl Roundabout in capital Manama.
Human-rights groups say the regime has arrested and tortured dozens of opposition activists. But in the streets, the security forces’ weapon of choice is teargas. Lots of it.
“Teargas in Bahrain is used as a weapon for killing, not for breaking up demos,” said Sayed Yousif Al Muhafda, head of documentation at the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights. “It’s always used as a weapon—it’s fired from close up and towards the upper part of the body.”
Teargas canisters are meant to be fired in an arc, landing amid crowds of protestors and giving off an instant fog of foul-smelling, eye-watering smoke to force people to clear out. But human-rights groups accuse the Bahraini security forces of “weaponizing” both the gas and the canisters, to lethal effect.
Physicians for Human Rights reported in 2012 that the government’s use of tear gas as a weapon had maimed, blinded and killed protestors. Muhafda said he had documented 30 cases where people—mostly elderly or disabled—had died of suffocation after canisters were fired or thrown into their homes. Several pregnant women have lost babies as a result.
One police tactic has been to fire dozens of canisters in quick succession into the mostly Shia villages where the protests are strongest, a crude exercise in collective punishment by the Sunni regime. Dozens of Youtube videos bear witness to this, and it’s particularly common around the time of big events such as this weekend’s Bahrain International Air Show—or the country’s showcase annual event, the Formula 1 racing.
“Formula 1 actually causes human-rights violations,” said Maryam Al Khawaja, acting President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. “Right before the event, the government goes on a crackdown in the surrounding villages to make sure there are no protests. If they feel there’s a probability that will happen, they’ll do the same with the air show.”
The Obama administration has banned the sale of U.S.-made tear gas canisters to Bahrain, but not all countries have done the same. Last October, campaign group Bahrain Watch discovered that the Bahrain government had ordered a massive batch of tear gas rounds from South Korean company. The tender was for 1.6 million canisters—more than one round for every Bahraini citizen. They launched a huge online campaign dubbed #Stoptheshipment. After supporters sent 400,000 emails to South Korean officials, Seoul banned the delivery, citing “political instability” in Bahrain.
But activists now fear that Bahrain will import the canisters via a third country to evade export controls. All the signs are that the authorities are upping the ante.
“They used to use gas that was weak—it would only make your eyes water. Now they’re using poisonous gas,” said Sayed Saeed, who said he attends protests almost daily. “Now, you just stand for a few moments, and if you don’t leave, or close your mouth to the gas, you’ll fall on the ground because it’s so strong.”
This week’s meeting between the Bahraini Crown Prince and the head of the main opposition party, Al Wefaq, raised hopes of a deal to end the deadlock in the country. But with violations continuing every day, it seems unlikely Bahrainis will be able to openly express their opinions any time soon.
“Teargas is a subset of the problem,” said Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division. “We’re talking about a government that denies people the ability to exercise the right to peacefully demonstrate.”