Bahrain protesters hold traffic demonstration

Demonstrators block traffic in centre of capital Manama in bid to pressure government ahead of weekend by-elections.

    Candidates have been campaigning ahead of by-elections for 18 seats vacated by opposition group al-Wefaq [Reuters]

    Protesters have disrupted traffic in the Bahraini capital's central business district in an attempt to step up pressure on the government ahead of by-elections this weekend, activists and witnesses say.

    The demonstration in Manama was called on Wednesday by an internet-based youth group that had acted as one of the main organisers of a popular uprising against the Bahraini government, demanding more rights for its Shia-majority citizens.

    Protests began in February, but have been suppressed by the country's security forces.

    Using vehicles to block traffic, witnesses said that activists slowed down the flow of vehicles on main roads leading to central Manama significantly for about three hours on Wednesday morning.

    A heavy contingent of police had been deployed to monitor the protest, they said. No violence was reported.

    "There is a strong participation in the [opposition's] peaceful movement," said Matar Matar, a senior member of al-Wefaq, Bahrain's largest Shia opposition group.

    Matar said that his group had not taken the lead in organising the protest, giving the credit for that instead to youth groups.

    The February 14 youth group, which has helped to organise pro-reform protests since earlier this year, had called for the protest on its page on the social networking site Facebook.

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    Roads had later been "reopened" and traffic was flowing as "normal", the state BNA news agency reported.

    It said that police had diverted vehicles to ease "congestion".

    The interior ministry had earlier warned people against taking part in the protest, saying that anyone caught doing so would risk imprisonment and having their driving licence revoked.

    Activists say they will continue their movement.

    "There will be protests on Friday and Saturday and demonstrators will return to Pearl Square to call for political reforms, a constitutional monarchy and boycotting by-elections," said Mohammad Mascati, head of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights.

    Tensions have been on the rise in the tiny Gulf island kingdom ahead of elections scheduled to take place on Saturday.

    The polls were called to replace 18 of the al-Wefaq MPs who walked out of the 40-member parliament in February in protest against a government crackdown on protesters.

    Bahraini security forces, aided by a Saudi-led contingent of forces from Gulf countries, drove protesters out of Pearl Square in mid-March.

    Authorities say that 24 people were killed during the unrest, while the opposition puts the death toll at 30.

    Compensation fund announced

    On Tuesday, the Bahraini government announced that it would be creating a fund to compensate victims of the unrest, though it did not specify how much money would be paid out, or how it would be allocated.

    Al Jazeera speaks to medics who say they were specifically targeted by Bahraini security forces

    The National Victims' Compensation Fund is designed to pay anyone who was "materially, morally or physically harmed" by security forces or public officials during protests this year, state news agency BNA reported.

    The kingdom's Sunni ruling family is keen to rehabilitate its image after drawing criticism from both domestic and international rights groups for the government response to protests.

    Families of victims, and people injured while helping victims, will qualify to receive compensation, according to the decree issued by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa.

    Rights groups say that medical staff who treated wounded protesters were targeted by security forces.

    The compensation fund is to be administered independently and will follow United Nations guidelines on reparations, BNA reported. Claimants will be judged by a "specialised court".

    The fund will receive money from the state budget, donations and from investment returns, BNA reported.

    It did not specify the value of pay-outs, saying only that they would be "substantial".

    On Tuesday, Bahrain approved an additional budget outlay of $1.03bn over two years to cover wage increases for government employees and improve living standards.

    A high-profile panel of lawyers, constituted by the Bahraini government, is currently investigating the unrest and allegations of widespread torture by security forces during the crackdown on protests.

    The Bahraini government has consistently maintained that excessive force was never used against protesters or detainees.

    SOURCE: Agencies


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