Thousands of opposition supporters marched through Manama’s streets in the largest attempt in months to retake Pearl Roundabout, which served as the epicentre of weeks of pro-democracy protests last year.
Thousands of riot police and other security forces have staked out positions around the square and across the Gulf island nation to prevent the opposition from staging a mass rally in or near the roundabout.
Opposition supporters were undeterred by the authorities’ warnings of zero tolerance for anti-government activities around the strategic island that is the home of the US Navy’s 5th Fleet.
“We will not back down,” said Nader Abdulimam, who had taken refuge in a house just outside of Manama with other protesters overcome by tear gas. “This has gone on for one year and it will go for another year or more.”
Some protesters hurled firebombs and rocks after the security forces fired tear gas. In an area about 10km west of central Manama, some demonstrators stood atop Bahrain’s ancient burial mounds, some more than 5,000 years old, waving flags featuring the image of Pearl Roundabout’s six-pronged monument.
Authorities imposed martial law after security forces stormed the protesters’ encampment at the landmark square, and later tore down the Pearl monument.
The now heavily guarded square holds great symbolic value for Bahrain’s opposition movement, and protesters have repeatedly tried to retake it. But the capital has largely been off limits to demonstrators since March.
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Street battles between security forces and protesters still flare up almost every day in the predominantly Shia villages around the capital.
Bahrain’s ruling Sunni monarchy has said it will not tolerate a rise in protests to mark the anniversary.
The island’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa said last year’s events were regrettable, although he downplayed the severity of the threat the protests had posed to the 200-year-old-rule of the Sunni dynasty.
The king says that a massive opposition movement does not really exist in the country.
“I regret the events of the past year,” he told the German weekly Der Spiegel in an interview that was published on Sunday.
“But there is no opposition in Bahrain, not in the sense of a united bloc. Such a thing is not in our constitution. There are just people with different views, and that is good.”
Shias account for about 70 per cent of Bahrain’s population of some 525,000 people, but say they have faced decades of discrimination, such as being denied access to senior political and security posts.
Bahrain’s Sunni rulers have taken steps on reforms, including relinquishing more powers to parliament. In an announcement early on Monday, Bahrain’s king named a Shia, Sadok bin Abdulkarim al-Shehabi, as health minister.
The health position is significant because Bahrain’s main hospital figured prominently during the early weeks of the uprising with authorities claiming medical staff aided demonstrators. Dozens of doctors and nurses have been put on trial.
The government, however, has so far refused to make the far-reaching changes the protesters and the main Shia group, Al Wefaq, the country’s largest opposition party, have demanded.
These include ending the monarchy’s ability to select the government and set all-important state policies.
Al Wefaq criticised the authorities for imposing “a siege” on the villages around Manama ahead of the first anniversary of Bahrain’s “revolution”.
Its statement on Sunday, it said police had stormed houses and fired tear gas indiscriminately in densely populated civilian areas. There were no reports of injuries, but Al Wefaq said several people were detained.
At least 40 people have been killed during months of political unrest in Bahrain.
In another tightening of policies, the official Bahrain News Agency said the kingdom would demand prior visa approval for many nations that had been allowed to obtain entry stamps upon arrival, including the US and other Western countries.
The decision follows the deportation on Sunday of two American activists accused of joining protests after entering on tourist visas.