February 14 will be the one-year anniversary of anti-government protests in Bahrain. The government and activists are preparing for a tense month with reports of security forces put on high alert. From February to March of last year, thousands of pro-democracy activists demonstrated, occupying the Pearl Roundabout in central Manama, the country’s capital. In March, the ruling al-Khalifa family requested aid from neighboring Saudi Arabia, which sent in troops and tanks. Security forces seized the Pearl Roundabout and many protesters and activists were arrested and imprisoned; a number of doctors, nurses and medical personnel who had treated wounded protesters in hospital were also arrested.
Martial law was lifted in June, after at least 35 people had died including four in police custody. The Pearl Roundabout was destroyed in March and those imprisoned tried in military, rather than civilian, courts. Prominent human rights activist Abdulhadi Alkhawaja was among those given a life sentence. Four others were sentenced to death and many have reported being beaten, tortured and sexually abused while imprisoned.
Continuing Protests and Police Repression
Protests have continued to occur regularly among the “underdeveloped neighborhoods” where Bahrain’s majority Shi’ite Muslim population lives; the country’s Shi’ites have long complained of economic and political marginalization. According to activists, at least 25 — some activists say at least 60 — have died in clashes with police who have continued to use teargas and birdshot and pursue protesters in security vehicles. Zainab Alkhawaja, the daughter of Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, has steadfastly continued the fight for human rights, democracy and justice in Bahrain, first with a hunger strike and, ever since, with regular updates on her Angry Arabiya Twitter feed.
Abdulhadi Alkhawaja is reportedly on the fifth day of a hunger strike and has been hospitalized due to his deteriorating health.
Protesters March to Pearl Square
Large demonstrations were held throughout the country in a “day of rage” last week. Protesters called for changes to Bahrain’s constitution, an elected prime minister, the release of political prisoners and an end to the use of torture. At least 25 were reported injured and one man died after suffering “severe head trauma.” Activist Nabeel Rajab marched with his wife and two children to Pearl Square as did a number of other activists including Zainab Alkhawaja, who was arrested as she made her way to the barbed wire surrounding Pearl Square as shown in this video.
The Bahrain Center for Human Rights, which Rajab is the director of, reports that security forces shot at marchers with stun grenades and tear gas. Alkhawaja has been detained at Noaim Police Station and needs a lawyer. She was previously detained for five days in December.
On February 12, two US citizens, Radhika Sainath and Huwaida Arraf, who were filming police repression of a peaceful demonstation in Manama, were arrested, held for 11 hours and then deported.
Activists say that the police have used increasingly ruthless tactics in the past two months. Mohammed al-Maskati, head of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, says that, instead of taking young men who have been detained to police stations, they have seen “a pattern has developed of beating them on the spot or holding them for short periods in informal detention centers where they are beaten up before release.” At least three people have died under such circumstances. Bahraini protesters also suspect that the police have hired Pakistanis and Arab nationals to assist the police.
In addition, foreign reporters have been denied visas to Bahrain in advance of the anniversary of the uprising.
Bahrain’s King “Regrets” Violence, Speaks of Protecting Women
The government has accused “hooligans” of creating disorder. Sheikh Abdul-Aziz bin Mubarak al-Khalifa, a senior adviser at the Information Affairs Authority and former ambassador to London, has said that they have seen “an escalation from the radical elements of the protesters.” In an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa said that he regretted the “events of last year” but claimed that his country has no “unified protest movement.” He also said that he had to put down the protests because — in a comment that rings hollow after seeing the treatment of Zainab Alkhawija – ”our women were very scared and it is the duty of a gentleman to protect women, so I had to protect them.”
The al-Khalifa regime is Sunni Muslim and, along with other Gulf states under Sunni rule, fears that “reforms making Bahrain the first real Gulf democracy would raise the bar in their own countries.” The government fears that empowered Shi’ites would form closer ties with Iran. The US, whose fifth fleet is housed in Bahrain, is an ally of Bahrain and shares similar concerns about Tehran.
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