14 Feb 2012

Bloody clashes on Bahrain uprising anniversary

Foreign Affairs Correspondent

Scores of mainly Shi’ite demonstrators in Manama are arrested in Bahrain as security forces crack down on protests marking the first anniversary of a pro-democracy uprising in the Gulf nation.

Reports out of the country suggest that security forces stopped repeated attempts by several thousands of protesters attempting to reach the heavily fortified Pearl Roundabout, the site where of last year’s protests which were violently suppressed with the aid of Saudi Arabian troops.

Tear gas has been the weapon of choice in dispersing the demonstrators (photo, above, courtesy of protester @iMriam) but several Bahraini residents have told Channel 4 News they began hearing gunfire in different areas of the capital city in the afternoon, although it is unclear who was firing them.

While attempts to form en masse in central Manama have largely been thwarted, clashes between demonstrators and security forces have been reported in the Shi’ite villages and towns on the peripheries of the city – a daily occurrence for the last year.

Videos appeared on YouTube showing protesters attacking police cars with Molotov cocktails, with tear gas the retaliation. Armoured vehicles are also cruising through the city and helicopters circling above.

One of those arrested was a prominent organiser of the protests, Sayed Ahmed, who was also arrested last year at around the same time.

Another key figure in the uprising, Mahmood, told Channel 4 News that Tuesday’s surge of protests would continue to build momentum, now that the world’s eyes had once again focussed on the tiny island that is linked to Saudi Arabia by the King highway.

If the security forces don’t let us go to Pearl Roundabout, the world can see that we still have no freedom. Protester Mahmood

He said: “It is very hard to get to the Pearl Roundabout, there are too many soldiers with guns. But people will keep trying. We want to go there because we believe [the roundabout] represents our freedom. If they don’t let us go there, the world can see that we still have no freedom.”

“We have to try much harder [than protestors from other Arabic countries] to get the world’s attention. Every day there are demonstrations here, but no one really seems to care. We are not marching to [commemorate] one year [since the uprising], we have never stopped.”

Shi’ites, who represent the majority of the nation’s population, complain that they are treated as second-class citizens by the ruling Sunni elite.

“One Bahraini blogger calls the Pearl Roundabout ‘the heart of darkness’. But the gloom is endlessly perforated by spray-painted slogans. One reads F*** (King) Hamad’ (King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa). There are many stencilled faces of those who have been killed by the Arab forces. Every morning new banners of protest sprout and then disappear. Tyres are burned in the Shia neighbourhoods. In all but the most contested areas, the spray-painted slogans (always in black) are crudely whitewashed.”

Read more from Snowblog

King Hamad told the nation in an address on state television on the anniversary eve that he remained committed to reforms launched a decade ago, a process the opposition has dismissed as cosmetic.

“(This) marked the launch of a development and modernisation process, which is still moving forward to meet the aspirations of our loyal people in all areas,” said the king, whose family has run the Gulf island state for over 200 years.

He said he had pardoned 291 prisoners, but they did not include those arrested during last year’s revolt. The opposition are demanding the release of 14 leading figures who were jailed by a military court for allegedly trying to stage a coup.

Last November, an independent Commission of Inquiry in Bahrain published its report into the protests in February and March last year. The panel was formed and funded by Bahrain’s government in an attempt to address charges of human rights abuses during the government’s response to the unrest. It found that:

• 35 deaths occurred between 14 February and 15 April 2011.

• The deaths of 19 of these civilians have been attributed to Security Forces 5 people allegedly died as a result of torture. Many detainees were subjected to torture and other forms of physical and psychological abuse while in custody.

• The total number of persons arrested was 2,929

• In many situations, the security forces violated the principles of necessity and proportionality, which are the generally applicable principles in matters relating to the use of force by law enforcement officials.