Bahrain arrests 29 on heels of human rights pledge

Riot policewomen arrest an anti-government protester during a demonstration in capital Manama, September 21, 2012. Hundreds of protesters on Friday tried to march in the main traditional shopping market to demand Bahrain King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifah to step down. Riot police fired tear gas and sound grenades to disperse the protesters. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

Published Saturday, September 22, 2012

Police in Bahrain arrested 29 people on Saturday following anti-government demonstrations in the capital Friday, just days after the government promised to improve its treatment of protesters and political prisoners.

Authorities said that the detained demonstrators threw Molotov cocktails, iron bars and stones at police, but activists dismissed the claim as a false pretext for reprisals against the opposition's renewed forays into the country's commercial center.

The arrests come three days after the kingdom pledged before the UN Human Rights Council to improve its treatment of political activists, crack down on torture, and prevent violence against ethnic and religious communities. Bahrain's foreign minister, Sheikh Khalid Bin Ahmed Bin Mohammed Al Khalifa, told council representatives in Geneva that Bahrain would accept the majority of the body's recommendations but stopped short of agreeing to abolish the death penalty.

Friday's demonstration was held in Gulf monarchy's capital of Manama, a rare, direct challenge to the ruling authorities who have crushed attempts at mobilization inside the city center since the bulldozing of Pearl Roundabout in March 2011. Weekly protests have continued in the nearby villages and suburbs, as have the waves of arrests and retaliatory acts against opposition figures, according to local human rights organizations.

One activist told Al-Akhbar the required demonstration permit is impossible to obtain, and security forces are quick to crack down on any political gathering.

"I believe we can expect more demonstrations like this to come, because people are beginning to realize that we need to exert real pressure on the government, otherwise we will not see the reforms we demand," said Mohammed al-Jishi, a lawyer who represents Bahrain's opposition movement.

Al-Jishi added that he expects the movement to be re-energized by this most recent wave of arrests.

Witnesses said hundreds of people joined the pro-democracy protest, which was called for by the February 14 Youth opposition coalition.

Demonstrators chanted "The people want the fall of the regime," the slogan of last year's Arab Spring uprisings that helped spark the mass protests in that took place in Bahrain in early 2011 before they were crushed by Bahrain's security forces with the help of Saudi forces.

Demonstrators also shouted "Down with Hamad," in reference to the king, and demanded the resignation of his uncle Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman Al-Khalifa, who has served as prime minister since Bahrain's independence from Britain in 1971, according to witnesses.

Anti-riot police responded with tear gas and stun grenades, and fired birdshot to disperse the crowd, wounding several protesters, the witnesses added.

The small but strategic island kingdom just across the Gulf from Iran is home base for the US Fifth Fleet. It saw protests in the 1990s that led to limited reforms which fell far short of opposition demands for a full-blown constitutional monarchy.

More than 80 people have died and thousands have been arrested since the uprising began in early 2011, according to news reports and advocacy organizations.

Bahrain has arrested a number of activists including high profile campaigners for human rights, such as movement leader Nabeel Rajab who was sentenced to three years imprisonment for libel and misuse of social media. The arrests have incensed activists in the country who regularly issue statements and take to the streets demanding their release.

(Al-Akhbar, AFP)

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