Protests mark Bahrain uprising anniversary

2012-02-13 16:00

Dubai - Bahraini police clashed with protesters on Monday, witnesses said, as the kingdom's security chief warned citizens not to heed calls by activists to mark the first anniversary of a Shi'ite-led uprising.

One year after a month-long pro-democracy protest erupted, the Gulf kingdom is at a political impasse, with Shi'ite protesters back on the streets despite a deadly crackdown by the ruling Sunni dynasty.

Police fired tear gas and stun grenades at hundreds of demonstrators in what some called "violent" clashes in Shi'te neighbourhoods overnight, the witnesses said.

One said "many" protesters were wounded but gave no further details.

In video footage posted on opposition websites, protesters were seen chanting "Down with Hamad!" referring to the country's king.

In a warning to activists on the eve of Tuesday's anniversary, public security chief Major General Tariq al-Hassan cautioned Bahrainis "not to respond to the inciting calls on [online] social networks to demonstrate".

Tightened security

In a statement published on the official BNA news agency, Hassan said the security forces would not hesitate to respond to "those that want to take advantage... to carry out unlawful, irresponsible acts that threaten public order".

He said the government "will prevent" such actions, but also appealed to citizens not to "escalate tensions", adding that police have already taken the necessary measures to bolster security ahead of the February 14 anniversary.

Activists have called for demonstrations on Monday and Tuesday at Manama's former Pearl Square, the focal point of the Shi''ite-dominated protests that were crushed by police in mid-March last year.

Thousands gathered late on Sunday for a speech by Al-Wefaq opposition leader cleric Ali Salman, head of the main Shi''ite group, who called for "a political solution" to the crisis, saying this would be possible only after the release "of all political prisoners" and major political reforms.

Fears are mounting of further unrest, particularly among the rival religious communities.

"It is difficult to predict what will happen in the coming days in Bahrain because of the diversity and fragmentation of political forces and a disturbing division between Shi''ites and Sunnis," Bahraini analyst Ali Fakhro said.

Daily protests

A former education minister, Fakhro argued that treating the problem as a security matter would not solve it, and that it needed a "political plan agreed upon by all political forces and civil organisations, for a national dialogue with the government".

Protests have become an almost daily occurrence in Bahrain, triggering clashes with security forces that are swiftly deployed to quell demonstrations with tear gas and batons.

Amnesty International said on Monday that Bahrain's government "remains far from delivering the human rights changes" recommended by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI).

Despite several government announcements claiming progress, "the fact is that it has still not delivered in the most important areas", said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa.

"Victims and families of victims of the serious human rights violations... are still waiting for justice," she added.

The rights group called on Bahraini authorities "to allow" the anniversary protests to take place.

The death toll from last year's unrest was 35, including five security personnel and five detainees tortured to death while in custody, the BICI report said last November.

Security solution

But Amnesty said on Monday "at least a further 20 have died since", in ongoing protests because of the continued use of excessive force by security personnel.

King Hamad has acknowledged the conclusions of the BICI report but the authorities "did not act with seriousness to implement the recommendations of the committee", Al-Wefaq's Salman said earlier this month.

He was speaking during a meeting with human rights expert Cherif Bassiouni who headed the commission and had returned to Manama to assess the implementation of his panel's recommendations.

"The authorities have essentially opted for the security solution, which has led to the current impasse and the resumption of large-scale protests," lamented Mansour al-Jamri, editor of the independent Bahraini daily Al-Wasat.

"A year later and we're back to square one. The crisis could escalate unless the authorities come up with a positive initiative" to revive dialogue with the opposition, he said.

Opposition formations led by Al-Wefaq have called for drastic constitutional amendments including an elected premier to replace the king's uncle, Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, who has been in office since independence in 1971.

They also demand full legislative and regulatory powers for the elected parliament.