'Biggest Demonstration' in Bahrain: 100,000 Protesters Demand Democracy

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Common Dreams

'Biggest Demonstration' in Bahrain: 100,000 Protesters Demand Democracy

'Thousands of security forces' clashed with protesters in US backed Bahrain

by
Common Dreams staff

Tens of thousands have protested in Manama, capital city of Bahrain, today, calling for democracy and civil rights. Up to 100,000 have been estimated in the streets as the march "stretched for miles".

Protesters were denied access to Pearl Square, the site of last year's uprising, as police forces fired tear gas and stun grenades at the crowds. "Thousands of security forces" blocked access to the protest site.

Over the course of one year, at least 45 demonstrators have been killed and hundreds have been arrested by the US backed Sunni monarchy.

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Al-Jazeera reports:

Tens of thousands of Bahrainis have demonstrated outside the capital Manama to demand political reforms, a year after the Gulf Arab state crushed an uprising, witnesses said.

The protesters began marching along a main road near the city on Friday in response to a call from leading Shia cleric Sheikh Isa Qassim who urged people to renew their calls for greater democracy.

A live blog showed images of the protesters carrying banners denouncing "dictatorship" and demanding the release of detainees.

"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, during his weekly sermon in the Shia village of Diraz.

Bahrain's majority Shiites seek to end the Sunni dynasty's control of all main posts and policies in the strategic Gulf nation, which is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.

He had promised to personally lead the march, his most high-profile action in more than a year of unrest. [...]

A photographer with the Reuters news agency said the main Budaiya road in the area of Diraz, and Saar, west of Manama was packed, just one hour before the protest was set to begin. [...]

Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, told Al Jazeera by phone from Manama that "thousands of security forces" had been deployed to close down roads leading to the protest site.

"The message is that people are not happy with the government. We have clear demands: an end to discrimination, a redistribution of wealth and power and [adherence] to the international convention on human rights," he said.

Rajab added that Friday's protests were "the biggest in our history". [...]

Bahrain, where the US Fifth Fleet is based, has remained mired in crisis and Shia youths clash daily with riot police.

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Reuters reports:

However the country, where the U.S. Fifth Fleet is based, has remained mired in crisis and Shi'ite youths clash daily with riot police. The unrest has slowed the economy in what was a major tourism and banking hub in the Gulf region.

Tension has risen in recent weeks around the February 14 anniversary of the uprising, with security forces maintaining a tight grip on the traffic intersection that protesters originally occupied.

Pro-government Sunni groups have organized counter rallies, warning the authorities not to enter into a dialogue on reforms that could give the elected parliament legislative clout and the power to form governments.

Those groups look to Sunni power Saudi Arabia as a key ally and demonise the opposition as loyal to Shi'ite Iran, a charge the opposition parties deny. Analysts say Riyadh does not want Bahrain to agree to reforms that empower Shi'ites.

[Shi'ite cleric Sheikh Isa Qassim] said Friday's march would show how strong the opposition was.

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Associated Press reports:

Bahrain's majority Shiites seek to end the Sunni dynasty's control of all main posts and policies in the strategic Gulf nation, which is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet. Shiites make up about 70 percent of Bahrain's 525,000 citizens, but they complain of widespread discrimination and say they are blocked from high-level political and security positions.

Bahrain's rulers have offered some concessions, including granting more decision-making powers to parliament, but reject demands that include giving up the right to appoint holders of top positions, such as prime minister.

At least 45 people have been killed in the unrest, and hundreds have been arrested.

"Down, down Hamad," protesters chanted in a reference to Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. Others carried signs in English and French denouncing the monarchy in an appeal to international media and websites.

Organizers said the march would end at a site called Freedom Square outside Bahrain's capital, Manama. Police reinforcements were sent to keep protesters from any attempts to shift toward Pearl Square, which is now ringed by razor wire and under 24-hour watch.

The unrest in Bahrain has put the U.S. in a difficult position. Washington has called for dialogue to try to ease the tensions, but it fears that pressing too hard on Bahrain's leaders might jeopardize its important military relationships. The 5th Fleet is one of the Pentagon's main Gulf forces on Iran's doorstep.

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Footage of today's protest:

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