Cleric's deportation stirs unrest in Bahrain

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The Independent Online
Fresh unrest has been reported from the Gulf island state of Bahrain after the deportation of a prominent Shia Muslim clergyman who is now seeking asylum in Britain.

The disturbances broke out again on Thursday night in villages east of the capital, Manama, and brought a tough reaction from the security forces, according to diplomats in the region. Bahrain lies off the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia and is an important air and naval base for western forces in the Gulf. The RAF has just concluded joint exercises with the Bahraini defence forces and US air force units.

The new trouble erupted after the Bahrain authorities deported Sheikh Ali Salman, a 29-year-old Shia clergyman who has played a leading role in protests against the rule of the Al-Khalifa dynasty, which belongs to the Sunni Muslim faith. Foreign analystsestimate that most of Bahrain's population are Shia although the government disputes the figures.

Two other clerics, Sheikh Hamza al-Deiri and Sheikh Haidar al-Sitri, were expelled with Sheikh Salman and arrived with him in London this week. Their asylum applications are being considered by the Home Office. A fourth preacher, Sheikh Adel Al-Shu'la, was later deported to Syria.

Bahrain has been racked by civil unrest since early December and at least five people are reported to have been killed. The protesters have demanded the restoration of the Bahrain parliament, suspended in 1975. But there is also a strong element of Islamic fundamentalism in the protest movement, which has drawn approving commentaries from Tehran radio.

The security forces in Bahrain have rounded up hundreds of people since the disturbances began. The government said 200 people were freed last weekend. But Amnesty International has expressed "serious concern" about allegations of human rights abuses, arbitrary detentions and illegal killings.

Opposition groups in exile allege that Bahrain's Director General of Security, Ian Henderson, from Britain, has masterminded a ruthless campaign of repression. The government blames the trouble on unspecified "foreign agitators" and says it is facing a campaign of destabilisation. Sheikh Salman received theological training in the Iranian holy city of Qom and there is a historic Persian claim to Bahrain which was revived by Iranian radicals in the 1980s. But it is the discontent of many ordinary Bahrainis and the heavy-handed tactics of the security services which many foreign diplomats believe are the main causes of the riots.

Arab diplomats say the protest movement has proved more durable than the Bahrain government at first believed. The trouble is causing concern in Washington and it is understood that American officials have urged the Bahrain government to take measures todefuse the unrest by tackling corruption and improving living conditions in the Shia villages outside Manama.

The US State Department has advised its citizens in Bahrain to avoid demonstrations and exercise caution in public areas.