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February 15, 2013

Thousands of Opposition Protesters Rally in Bahrain

by Carla Babb

Thousands of opposition supporters held demonstrations Friday in Bahrain's capital, leading to clashes for a second day.

Anti-government protesters jammed a major highway [Boudaya] that links several Shi'ite-populated areas to the capital, Manama, to mark the second anniversary of an uprising against the country's Sunni rulers.

While the march along the main highway was largely peaceful, breakaway groups clashed with riot police in nearby neighborhoods. Witnesses say demonstrators threw stones and police fired tear gas.

Friday's demonstrations began early in the morning and lasted almost all day.

During protests on Thursday, a teenage boy was killed by police gunfire on the outskirts of the capital. And overnight Thursday to Friday, a policeman in Manama died after being hit by a homemade explosive.

Seeking democratic reforms

The majority Shi'ite opposition called for the strike to mark the anniversary of the 2011 uprising amid the wave of pro-democracy movements in other Arab countries.

Protesters are demanding democratic reforms in Bahrain and an end to the Sunni monarchy's perceived discrimination against Shi'ites.

Bahrain's government crushed the demonstrations in March 2011, sending security forces to clear a protest encampment in Manama and bringing in troops from neighboring Sunni-led Gulf states to restore order.

Street battles between Bahraini security forces and Shi'ite demonstrators have continued, mostly outside of Manama. At least 55 people have been killed since the uprising began.

Human rights issues

Bahrain rights activist Maryam al-Khawaja said the government is punishing its people.   

"We're still seeing cases of extrajudicial killings, excessive use of force, kidnappings, torture. All kinds of torture: physical, psychological and sexual," said al-Khawaja.

The near-daily protests in the small Gulf state often end in violent confrontations between protesters and police.

Mohammed al-Maskati of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights was detained without charge and fined for running a human rights organization without a government license.

"I get death threats from anonymous people. I don't know who is this. I get calls from anonymous people saying if you continue your work we will be in danger," said al-Maskati.

Talk of reform

In a major escalation of the conflict, troops from neighboring Sunni-run Gulf states rolled into Bahrain in March 2011 to crush the protests. This week, Bahrain's government and the opposition held reconciliation talks for the first time in 18 months.

Salman AlJalahma, the media attaché at Bahrain's Embassy in Washington, said the monarchy is committed to reform.

"The mistakes are no secret. They happened. They were admitted. They were reported and they are being addressed," said AlJalahma.

The government says dialogue - without preconditions - can end the deadlock.

"We definitely want to get everyone to the table. And we encourage citizens to actually assist Bahrain and the government, providing a stable platform for these discussions to go on instead of provoking and aggravating a very volatile environment," said AlJalahma.

But protesters say they need accountability first.

"The government, with everything they're doing on the ground, it's as if they are setting up the dialogue for failure. You cannot keep shooting people in the streets and say, 'Come sit at the dialogue table,'" said al-Khawaja.

The opposition plans more demonstrations to continue its call for change.

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