29th January 2005
Security forces in Bahrain have fired tear gas at protesters attempting to march to the landmark Pearl roundabout in the capital, Manama, on the one-year anniversary of the beginning of anti-government demonstrations at the site.
Activists reported on Tuesday that security forces had used stun grenades and shotguns to scatter hundreds of protesters attempting to occupy the roundabout which became the epicentre of weeks of protests last year by the Gulf island's Shia majority against the ruling Sunni dynasty.
Protesters marched from Sanabis, Deih and Jidhafs, which lie a few kilometres to the west of Manama, despite police warnings that protests would be dispersed, witnesses said.
"Down with (King) Hamad!" they chanted.
The Coalition of the Youth of February 14th Revolution, a group that operates separate from the main Shia bloc led by Al-Wefaq, declared on Tuesday that they planned to return to the central roundabout.
"All of us are returning", read a call for protest posted on its Facebook page, designating 6:40am local time (0340 GMT) as the starting time.
Bahrain News Agency quoted interior ministry’s appeal that cautioned against what it called "dubious TV channels that may attempt to mislead the public".
Tuesday's confrontations came just hours after clashes on Monday might between security forces and protesters.
Thousands of opposition supporters marched through Manama's streets in the largest protest against the government in months.
Abdulaziz bin Mubarak Al Khalifa, a senior official with the Bahrain Information Affairs Authority, told Al Jazeera: "It's very unfortunate that a very radical element of one of the opposition sects has decided once again to take to the streets calling for reforms."
"Let's not forget there have been many opportunities for dialogue starting with Royal Highness crown prince asking for dialogue a year ago, and their policy has been to reject all these attempts," he said.
"So, we do see some pockets of violence but they are not of the scale that we imagined it to be. We hope people focus their energy in more positive way.
"People have been throwing Molotov cocktail and attacking the security forces on the ground and actually imposing themselves on the majority population of Bahrain."
Security forces have taken positions around the roundabout and also across the Gulf island nation to prevent the opposition from staging a mass rally.
But some activists were undeterred by the authorities' warnings of zero tolerance for anti-government activities in 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.
More than 50 police vehicles filled a site that protesters have dubbed "Freedom Square", which hosted several government-sanctioned opposition gatherings last week.
The government imposed martial law last March and called in Saudi-led GCC troops, which crushed the protests. The authorities then razed the landmark edifice at Pearl roundabout to the ground.
The now heavily guarded square holds great symbolic value for Bahrain's opposition movement, and protesters have repeatedly tried to re-occupy it. But authorities have effectively locked off the capital to demonstrations since then.
Martial rule was lifted in June, but street battles between security forces and protesters still flare up almost every day in the predominantly Shia villages around the capital.
More than 40 people have been killed since the Shia uprising began.
Bahrain's Sunni rulers have promised reforms, although they have fallen short of the demands made by the main Shia group, Al Wefaq. These include ending the monarchy's ability to select the government and set key state policies.
Victoria Nuland, the US State Department, spokeswoman expressed concern over the violence on Monday and said Washington wanted to see demonstrators stage peaceful protests.
She also called for security forces to "exercise restraint and operate within the rule of law and international judicial standards".
This of course marks the events of a year ago, when the encouragement of Mubarak's ouster encouraged people in other Middle-Eastern states to rally against their strongmen. The Kingdom of Bahrain was no exception, and issues here were complicated by the monopolization of power by the Sunni royal family against the Shi'a majority, as well as US interests in the Gulf, nearby Iran, and of course the naval base in Bahrain. From the outset the government reacted strongly to protests, and wrote them off as agitation by Iran.
The protests didn't last as long as the others, as they were put down by the state brutally, including help from other Gulf states like Saudi Arabia. The government was so intent on erasing this problem that the center of protests, the Pearl Square Monument which marked Bahrain's history and cooperation with members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, was demolished. Any symbols of the square in pictures, even in money, was removed.
The following months mostly saw sackings and prosecutions, handing down heavy sentences to even doctors who were treating the people. All the while the US largely remained silent beyond usual statements of 'concern' on the situation.
It is interesting that here the US is urging protesters to stage 'peaceful' protests and refrain from violence (which was the position in Yemen and Egypt), though this isn't as strongly put in places in like Libya and Syria. It's all rather amusing (and ridiculous) to see considering people that get caught up regardless, whose only saving grace will be if their particular dictator is pro or anti-US.