BAHRAINI police have fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters marching toward the landmark Pearl Square in the country’s capital, eyewitnesses say, just two days after authorities lifted emergency rule in the Gulf kingdom.
The downtown square was the epicentre of weeks of Shi’ite-led protesters against Sunni rulers earlier this year. There were no immediate reports of injuries during the protests today. The eyewitnesses spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals.
The Bahraini government lifted emergency rule on Wednesday. Tanks and soldiers left the heart of capital, but authorities warned they were not easing pressure on anti-government protesters as opposition groups called on its supporters to return to the streets. That was the first such appeal since the military overran the protesters’ encampment at Pearl Square after martial law was imposed in mid-March.
At least 30 people have been killed since the protests for more rights and freedoms began in February in the Western-allied island nation, which hosts the US Navy’s 5th Fleet. The protests were inspired by revolts across the Arab world.
Bahrain’s Sunni rulers invited 1,500 troops from a Saudi-led Gulf force to help suppress the unrest when emergency rule was declared. The Saudi intervention infuriated Shi’ite power Iran. It underscored the fears of Iran among Sunni-dominated Arab countries, particularly among Gulf Arab leaders who fear that gains by Bahrain’s Shi’ites could provide an opening for Iran to expand its influence on the doorstep of rival Saudi Arabia.
Also today, Formula One’s governing body was set to decide whether to reschedule the Bahrain Grand Prix for later this year or scrap the kingdom’s biggest international event altogether after the season-opening March race was postponed due to political unrest.
Despite tight security across Bahrain and police reinforcements at numerous checkpoints around the capital, hundreds of opposition supporters from the mostly Shi’ite-populated villages around Manama took their grievances to the streets again and set off to reclaim Pearl Square.
“Instead of rights, every family got a political prisoner. Did the government expect people to stay at home?” said Nabeel Rajab, a leading activist and the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights’ president. “After almost three months of military rule, the crisis is deeper because every family has suffered when the army was sent to solve a political problem.”
The emergency rule gave the military wide powers to suppress demonstrations led by the country’s Shi’ite majority against the minority Sunni monarchy that has ruled Bahrain for more than 200 years. Hundreds of protesters, political leaders and Shi’ite professionals, such as doctors and lawyers, have been arrested and tried in a special security court, set up under martial law. Two protesters were sentenced to death.
The annual F1 race has been Bahrain’s most profitable international event since 2004, when the Gulf kingdom became the first Arab country to stage the Grand Prix. Bahrain organisers insist they are ready to host the race this year.
FIA’s World Motor Council planned to decide on rescheduling it when it gathers in Barcelona later today.