Tens of thousands of Bahrainis demonstrated on Friday (9 March 2012) to demand democratic reforms, stepping up pressure on the U.S.-allied, Saudi-backed Bahrain’s government with the biggest protest yet in a year of unrest.
They began marching along a highway near Manama in response to a call from leading Shi’ite cleric Sheikh Isa Qassim, who urged people to renew their calls for greater democracy. “We are here for the sake of our just demands that we cannot make concessions over and we stick with them because we have sacrificed for them,” Qassim said before the march in his weekly sermon in the Shi’ite village of Diraz.
Qassim along with several Shia and Sunni politicians led the march.
“It is the biggest demonstration in the past year. I would say it could be over 100,000,” said a Reuters photographer after protesters filled up the main Budaiya highway in the area of Diraz and Saar, west of Manama.
Majority Shi’ites as well as some Sunnis were in the forefront of the protest movement which erupted in February 2011 after uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.
Backed by Saudi Arabia, the ruling Salafi (Wahhabi) Al Khalifa family crushed the protests a month later, imposing martial law and bringing in Saudi and United Arab Emirates troops and Pakistani mercenaries to help restore order. As is usual tradition of Arab kingdoms which discriminate against their own Shia and Sufi population, Bahraini regime accused Shi’ite power Iran of fomenting the unrest.
On Friday, Iraqi followers of Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr demonstrated in Basra in support of the Bahraini opposition. Around 3,000 people chanted anti-Saudi slogans and carried Bahraini and Iraqi flags.
News report in The Financial Times
By Simeon Kerr in Dubai
Bahraini protesters held a huge rally demanding democratic change in the largest anti-government demonstration since unrest destabilised the strategically important Gulf kingdom last year.
Activists estimated that more than 200,000 people on Friday flooded a suburban highway in an area populated by the majority Shia, who have been demanding political reform from the minority Sunni-led monarchy.
The government said the protest, encouraged by the island’s most senior Shia cleric, numbered closer to 100,000.
Consisting of a significant portion of the country’s 600,000 citizens, the march was a riposte to government claims that the 13-month uprising is subsiding ahead of April’s scheduled Formula 1 Grand Prix. The race was cancelled last year because of protests.
At the protest, which ended peacefully, men and women chanted for the downfall of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. They also called for the release of political leaders imprisoned after Saudi Arabia led Gulf forces on to the island last March, providing cover for the ensuing brutal government crackdown on dissent.
Later, police used tear gas to disperse hundreds of youths who attempted to march on to the site of Pearl roundabout, the focal point of last year’s demonstrations, saying the protesters had hurled rocks at them.
“The people, full of anger about the rights violations, are united in their demands for an elected government – there is no way back,” said Jalil Khalil of the main Shia opposition group al-Wefaq.
The protest comes amid rising speculation that a dialogue may soon be launched after the royal court minister made contact with opposition leaders in February.
“The protests could be a message of pressure ahead of talks, so the Shia opposition has made their point,” said Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Mubarak al-Khalifa, government spokesman. “However, the call for dialogue has always been made available.”
But Mr Khalil says the opposition has had no contact with the ruling family since those preparatory talks in February.
The government, seeking to revive its status as a financial hub, says it is reforming, claiming that the protests are fomented by neighbouring Iran.
An independent royal commission documented 46 deaths between last February and October, slamming the security forces for excessive use of force and systematic torture.
But opposition groups, who now estimate the death toll at more than 60, say reforms are half-hearted box-ticking, lacking intent to change facts on the ground.
Police continue to beat youths regularly amid slow progress in reviewing sentences passed down by a military court in the aftermath of the crackdown, they say.
In the political vacuum, youths have increasingly turned to violence as they challenge the status quo, throwing petrol bombs and rocks that have injured policemen.
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