Heavy police presence blocks Bahrain protests

Police use tear gas on protesters trying to return to Pearl Roundabout, while clashes rage in outlying villages.

Bahrain police
Police have been deployed heavily throughout the capital to prevent protesters from gathering. [EPA]

A massive police presence in the Bahraini capital kept protesters from gathering in Pearl Roundabout to mark the one-year anniversary of widespread pro-democracy protests in the island kingdom.

Armoured vehicles lined major highways leading into the capital on Tuesday and sealed off the entrances to villages, some of which became the site of violent clashes between protesters and police that continued overnight.

The village of Sanabis became a focal point, activists said, with police raiding homes and arresting numerous people.

Small groups of protesters did manage to reach the capital, where they were quickly dispersed by riot police wielding tear gas and shotguns.

One of those groups was led by Nabeel Rajab, the head of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, who was briefly detained by police. Witnesses said that officers fired tear-gas canisters directly at the protesters.

At least 30 people were arrested during Tuesday’s protests, activists said, including several American activists working with an organisation called Witness Bahrain.

Two other members of the group were arrested and deported after a protest on Sunday.

‘People keep coming back’

The uprising in Bahrain was crushed last March, when Bahraini security forces – backed by soldiers from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf countries – cleared protesters from Pearl Roundabout and destroyed the iconic statue at its centre.

Smaller-scale protests have continued, though, mostly in villages outside the capital, and they have increased in frequency in the run-up to Tuesday’s anniversary.

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Abdulaziz bin Mubarak Al Khalifa, a senior official at Bahrain’s information ministry, dismissed the protesters as “very radical elements” of the opposition.

“There have been many opportunities for dialogue, and their policy has been to reject all of those attempts,” he said.

About 10,000 people on Monday joined a government-sanctioned march, organised by Al Wefaq, the largest opposition political society. Some of them broke off and tried to march to Pearl Roundabout, but scattered after police fired off a volley of tear gas.

The government said in a statement on Tuesday that it would “hold the organisers of the march responsible for the violent because they failed to control the crowd.”

Al Wefaq called the government’s claim of responsibility an “unfounded accusation”.

“They have used excessive force against the people throughout all this time, but people keep coming back to the streets to insist on their demand to have a role in the decisions about their country,” said Abdel Jalil Khalil, a former member of parliament from Al Wefaq.

All 18 of the group’s MPs resigned in protest last year.

Increasingly frustrated

Protesters, mostly youth, have grown increasingly frustrated with the government’s lack of reforms. Most of the protesters are members of Bahrain’s Shia majority, angry at what they call decades of political and economic discrimination by a Sunni-dominated government.

Speaking to Al Jazeera’s “The Stream”, Maryam Alkhawaja, of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, said protests had never stopped in Bahrain but said media coverage of the situation in the country had stopped.

He also said protesters in Bahrain saw the country’s relationship with the US, which has a naval base in the country and considers the island a key regional ally, in the same light as that between Syria and Russia, which has refused to condemn Damascus’ crackdown on protests.

“To the Bahraini protesters, the US is to Bahrain as Russia is to Syria,” Alkhawaja told Al Jazeera.

An independent government commission released a report on the unrest in November. It documented widespread abuses by the security services – routine torture, arbitrary arrests, detainees held incommunicado for weeks – and recommended dozens of reforms.

The government has taken a few modest steps toward reform, but opposition activists say those have been mostly cosmetic. Two protesters died in mysterious circumstances while in police custody over the last month.

“If they implement [these reforms] it would pave the way for dialogue, but they cannot be implemented, because the bureaucracy is not responding,” said Mansoor al-Jamri, the editor of Al-Wasat, Bahrain’s only opposition newspaper. “There’s inertia … a political solution cannot exist in Bahrain.”

Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, the king of Bahrain, called for “cohesion and reconciliation” during a televised address on Monday night.

“There is no doubt that everyone is looking to achieve this objective, and we are pleased to see today sincere and honest calls from those who are keen on the unification and cohesion of the country,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera