Violence reignites a year after Bahrain uprising

By Donald Macintyre

Three months after a report condemned Bahrain's use of "excessive force" last year, 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, which it blamed for the violence that erupted after demonstrators sought to occupy Manama's heavily guarded Pearl Roundabout, the focal point of weeks of protests last year.

Armoured personnel carriers also patrolled the capital after pre-dawn skirmishes in which youths threw petrol bombs at police cars. Police responded by firing tear gas at about 24 protesters near Pearl Square. They detained 30 people, with six United States citizens reported to be among those arrested.

Yesterday, Bahrain's information affairs authority said the six US citizens had been deported "for applying for tourist visas under false pretences".

In a televised speech on Tuesday, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa told Bahrainis that he remained committed to a reform process launched 10 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 dismisses the reform process as cosmetic and says 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, led by a Sunni politician, want the elected Parliament to be able to form governments. Instead, they have been afforded greater scrutiny.

Shias, who account for about 70 per cent 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.

The United States has suspended a US$53 million ($63.6 million) arms deal until it sees "more progress" on political reform. But 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 are in detention.

Reuters reported that on 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 bullets.

- Independent

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