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Bahrain Outlaws Public Gatherings

  • Phillip Walter Wellman

Protesters and shoppers run for cover from a sound grenade thrown by riot police to disperse protesters, during an anti-government protest in the capital Manama, October 26, 2012.

Protesters and shoppers run for cover from a sound grenade thrown by riot police to disperse protesters, during an anti-government protest in the capital Manama, October 26, 2012.

As part of its continuing crackdown on dissent, Bahrain this week banned public gatherings, saying violence associated with anti-government demonstrations is spiraling out of control.

Near-nightly clashes between police and opposition demonstrators have led to several recent deaths, prompting leaders from both sides of the conflict to express concern.

A policeman was killed and another injured during protests in a village south of the capital, Manama, earlier this month. A 17-year-old died after security forces fired shotgun pellets at him during a demonstration in September.

Salman al-Jalahma, a spokesperson for Bahrain’s Information Affairs Authority, says outlawing public gatherings is aimed at protecting everyone in the country.

"This ban is not based on people disagreeing with the government although that’s how it is being perceived by the media," said al-Jalahma. "The ban is because there has been a history of violence at these protests, which has often resulted in loss of lives and injuries to security personnel as well as to the rioters themselves and hundreds of thousands of dollars in property damage."

Bahrain has seen repeated protests since February 2011 when the nation’s majority Shi’ite Muslims took to the streets to demand political reforms from their Sunni rulers.

Since then, breakaway factions of the opposition have increasingly resorted to more violent tactics, including the frequent use of fire bombs.

Despite the violence, rights groups and opposition supporters condemn Bahrain’s new law on public gatherings, which they insist violates the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly.

Matar Matar, a spokesperson for the country’s main opposition party Al-Wefaq, says suppression could have dangerous implications.

"Banning the peaceful gatherings, we feel that it will have a negative impact on the level of violence in Bahrain," said Matar. "We are worried that the level of violence will increase."

Prohibiting demonstrations is the latest effort by the Bahraini government to crack down on unrest.

Authorities jailed a number of activists for organizing and taking part in unlicensed protests earlier in the year. Activists also claim security forces have increased their use of shotgun pellets, a claim the government has neither confirmed nor denied.

The heavy security presence in Bahrain has, so far, been effective in preventing another mass uprising like one last year.

But London School of Economics analyst Kristian Coates Ulrichsen says the opposition’s deep discontent remains a major concern for the government.

"The fact that probably keeps rulers of the Gulf awake at night is these unlawful demonstrations escalating to the point where ruling families could be put at peril and this is why they are trying to act preemptively to ensure that never happens," said Ulrichsen.

Bahrain’s Gulf neighbor Kuwait is also grappling with unrest. Several people were injured there last week when police and demonstrators clashed at a protest over electoral laws. A new rally has been called for November 4.

Analyst Ulrichsen says the regional unrest highlights the difficulties that Gulf countries, especially Bahrain, are facing following widespread democratic uprisings in the Middle East.

"It’s a reminder to the outside world who perhaps had moved on from Bahrain that the trouble is continuing and it’s not likely to be resolved anytime soon," said Ulrichsen.

Authorities in Bahrain say they are unable to predict how long the ban on public gatherings might last.
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