A year on, violence erupts again at Bahrain flashpoint
Gulf state's military goes in hard to prevent a repeat of clashes that marked start of uprising
Donald Macintyre writes political sketches for The Independent, having been Jerusalem correspondent since 2004, covering Israel and the Occupied Territories, as well as travelling for the paper to Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, Libya and Egypt.
Wednesday 15 February 2012
Three months after a report condemned Bahrain's use of "excessive force" in 2011, the Gulf kingdom yesterday deployed armoured vehicles and unprecedented numbers of troops in an effort to prevent a repeat of the lethal clashes.
Heavy military reinforcements were sent to the mainly Shia villages outside the capital Manama to prevent people from gathering in response to a call by the main opposition movement Al Wefaq to mark yesterday's anniversary of the uprising against their Sunni rulers.
At the same time, the government heralded a possible political crackdown on Al Wefaq by saying it would open legal procedures against the party, whom it blamed for the violence which erupted on Monday and early yesterday morning after demonstrators sought to occupy Manama's now heavily guarded Pearl Roundabout, the focal point of weeks of protests last year.
Armoured personnel carriers also patrolled the capital itself in the wake of pre-dawn skirmishes in which youths threw petrol bombs at police cars. The police responded by firing tear gas at around two dozen protesters near Pearl Square, sending canisters bouncing off civilian vehicles. They detained around 30 people, with 6 US citizens reported to be among arrested. Last night, Bahrain's information affairs authority said the six US citizens had been deported "for applying for tourist visas under false pretenses".
In a televised speech on Monday, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa told Bahrainis that he remained committed to a reform process launched ten years ago, adding that it "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." He also said he had pardoned 291 prisoners.
The opposition, however, dismisses the reform process as cosmetic and points out that the released prisoners do not include those detained during last year's revolt, which was eventually suppressed with the help of Saudi forces.
Al Wefaq and other opposition parties, including the secular Waad, which is led by a Sunni politician, want the elected parliament to be able to form governments. Instead they have only been afforded greater scrutiny.
Shias, who account for around 70 percent of Bahrain's population of 525,000, remain angry about what they see as their treatment as second class citizens, denied many state jobs and given less access to good housing than the kingdom's Sunni minority.
Although the US suspended a $53m arms deal until it sees "more progress" on political reform, Bahrain's authorities largely escaped the kind of international censure levelled at other regimes undermined by the Arab spring. Geographically close to Iran, the island kingdom is home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet.
The authorities have hired US and British police chiefs - including the former Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner John Yates - to assist in reform in the wake of last November's Commission report, which heavily criticised the handling of the 2011 protests, including the use of torture against detainees. Forty people died during the protests or in detention.
Reuters reported that on Monday, the eve of yesterday's anniversary, hundreds of protesters broke away from an authorised opposition rally to head for the Pearl Roundabout, before police stopped them with tear gas and rubber bullet pellets. Despite calls for restraint by Al Wafeq leader Sheikh Ali Salman, street battles followed with youths throwing petrol bombs, rocks and iron bars, and chanting slogans supporting Hassan Mushaimaa, the imprisoned Shia leader who is more radical than Al Wefaq.
Meanwhile, the hackers group Anonymous yesterday managed to bring down the website of Combined Systems Inc, the Pennsylvania-based company which exports crowd control equipment, including allegedly the tear gas used by the Bahraini authorities. The group posted a message saying CSI sold "mad chemical weapons to militaries and cop shops around the world."
Britain has sold weapons worth £1m to Kingdom
Britain sold more than £1m of military equipment to Bahrain last summer while the armed crackdown on protesters was still continuing. Figures released by the Government show that artillery, naval guns and rifles were amongst the weapons approved for export.
It adds to an awkward week for Britain's relationship with the kingdom. On Monday the former Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner John Yates, now serving as an adviser on police reform in Bahrain, said the crowd-control tactic of "kettling" would "work really well" there.
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