Bahrain bans all protests in new crackdown

Sunni monarchy breaks its pledge to reform and steps up repression of the island's Shia majority

The Bahraini authorities are to intensify repression by banning demonstrations and meetings to ensure public safety and prevent violence, according to the state news agency.

The Sunni al-Khalifa monarchy crushed pro-democracy protests by in the island kingdom's Shia majority last year with Saudi military help, amid allegations of widespread use of torture. There have been street protests and skirmishes since the crackdown, but the government says it will now prevent any kind of protest.

"It has been decided to stop all gatherings and marches and not to allow any activity before being reassured about security and achieving the required stability in order to preserve national unity," the Interior Minister, Sheikh Rashid bin Abdullah al-Khalifa, was quoted as saying. Action would be taken against anyone organising or taking part in demonstrations, he said.

The opposition made it clear that it would continue its protests. Ali al-Aswad, a former MP for the al-Wifaq party, said: "The decision to continue has been taken. This is our right. The government is not willing to talk to the people and, if we stop marches and rallies, we will get nothing for our demands." He doubts that the police will be able to quell protests and fears that the National Guard and army may be called in.

A sign of the deepening confrontation in Bahrain has been the sealing off for almost two weeks of the Shia village of al-Aker, where the authorities say a policeman was killed and another wounded by a homemade bomb. YouTube footage shows men in uniform demolishing a ceremonial gate at the entrance to al-Aker in a move recalling the demolition of Shia mosques and holy places by the authorities last year, allegedly because they did not have planning permission.

The ban on protests will be embarrassing for the US, which has its Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain, and also for Britain, which has close links to the island's rulers. It will highlight the silence or muted criticism of both countries over continued repression in Bahrain, in sharp contrast to their outrage over state violence in Syria.

Alistair Burt, Minister for the Middle East and North Africa at the Foreign Office, said yesterday: "I am concerned that the government of Bahrain has decided to ban all rallies and public gatherings until further notice."

The monarchy in Bahrain responded to international criticism last year by commissioning a report that condemned the Bahraini authorities for using systematic torture, killings and the imprisonment of the innocent, notably hospital doctors. Despite promises of reform, few of the report's recommendations have been implemented and the level of police violence appears to have been rising. There are YouTube videos of police taking parting the looting of a Shia-owned supermarket. In addition, sentences on human rights activists and doctors have been upheld by the courts despite criticism from international human rights organisations.

The opposition fears the authorities may escalate repression because they feel the US and Britain will continue to turn a blind eye. Mr al-Aswad says: "They think their actions are regarded as legitimate by the international community."

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