Bahrain protesters face security clampdown

Protesters turn out for day of mass action, in defiance of King Hamad's recent ban on demonstrations

Young Bahraini boy flashes the peace sign.

Bahraini security officials fired tear gas at hundreds of anti-government protesters who gathered Wednesday to protest economic inequaliy and government repression.

Protesters near the village of Shakhoora were attacked when they approached a barbed wire fence erected by police the night before.

Pro-democracy demonstrations were held across the small island nation, defying a recently-issued ban on protests. The day of mass action and coordinated civil disobedience coincided with the anniversary of the country’s independence from the UK. 

Security forces began a pre-emptive crackdown in anticipation of the demonstrations. Officers erected checkpoints and placed cement blocks and barbed wire fences around Shi'a villages, a main source of opposition to the ruling family.

Villages are "caged in barbed wire," according to Maryam Khawaja, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.

In the weeks leading up to Wednesday's protests, authorities made amendments to the law making it easier for security forces to crackdown on demonstrators, according to Amnesty International's Sunjeev Bery. Tougher penalties for "terrorism," a term the government sometimes applies to all forms of political dissent, were imposed one week before planned protests.

"The government will forcefully confront the suspicious calls to violate law and order and those who stand behind them," state media reported Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa as saying. 

A decree banning all protests and public gatherings in the capital was issued by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifah, along with another decree stipulating that the parent of a child that repeatedly protests risks imprisonment.

"These are pretty draconian attacks against basic human rights and they have nothing to do with terrorism," Bery told Al Jazeera. 

Security forces have arrested bloggers, journalists and other critics of the government in the weeks leading up to Wednesday's protests, according to Bery, and live ammunition of tear gas has been used in sporadic protests over the last few weeks.

Teargas has been the greatest cause of death since the uprising began, and there have been more than 90 deaths as a result of government abuses, according to Khawaja. 

Bery believes the "real question" is whether or not the U.S. government is going to "finally hold its military ally accountable."

"The presence of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet should not be a diplomatic free pass that the Bahraini government can use to violate human rights when it wants to," he said. "It's time for the U.S. to be equally tough on military allies as it is on its perceived adversaries when it comes to basic human rights."

Although Sunnis are a minority in Bahrain, they have been in control of the government for decades, and protests have largely been driven by Shi'a activists calling for more economic inequality.

Many of the protests took place in the capital but villages across the country are participating. Protests began immediately after the dawn prayers and have been ongoing. Due to the call for civil disobedience, businesses were shut down in many areas, according to Khawaja.

Activists began organizing for Wednesday’s day of mass action, labeled "Bahrain Tamarrod," in early July via social media, taking their cue from Egypt's Tamarrod movement, a rebel movement that launched a campaign to oust President Mohamed Morsi.

Bahraini citizens have held protests demanding full democratic representation, respect for human rights and greater socio-economic justice from the kingdom’s monarchs, said Khawaja. 

Inspired by other pro-democracy movements that swept the Arab world, Wednesdays planned actions are a continuation of a two-and-a-half year uprising that began February 14, 2011.

Protesters at the time staged a month-long sit-in at Manama's Pearl Roundabout. "It started off with people demanding a new constitution to replace the unilaterally written constitution by the King," according to Khawaja, who said protestors were seeking "a delivery on the promises of a constitutional monarchy in 2002."

After a violent crackdown by Bahrain’s security forces in March 2011, aided by troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the demands of the protesters changed and calls for the ruling family to step down were made. 

Demonstrations have been largely confined to the villages since then, and Wednesday's rally will be the first attempt in months to stage a demonstration in the capital.

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