Bahraini anti-government activists clashed with security forces as thousands of demonstrators took to the streets Saturday, marking the Feb. 14 anniversary of the 2011 pro-democracy uprising. The rally, organized by the kingdom's main opposition al-Wefaq movement, was one of the biggest since the uprising was quashed three years ago.
Vast crowds of men, women and children took to the streets of the small Gulf Arab nation calling for democracy, political reform and the release of political prisoners.
“We will not stop until we achieve our demands,” protesters shouted. “Shias and Sunnis, we all love this country.”
Heeding calls by al-Wefaq, around 15,000 Bahrainis marched in the capital Manama's streets a day after the three-year anniversary of the start of the anti-government uprising, which was stamped out by a harsh government crackdown. Demonstrators have been taking to the streets for several days to mark the occasion.
The protesters marched for several miles before clashes erupted. Police fired tear gas at the crowd, which included women and children. The protesters carried the red and white Bahraini flag and signs that read “Democracy is the only solution.”
Bahrain's Interior Ministry said that numerous peaceful rallies and protests had taken place in the past week without police interference, but added that there had been "unprovoked attacks" on police by some using "urban guerrilla warfare tactics" including homemade deadly weapons over the past few days, which required the security personnel to use force.
Efforts to restart on-and-off reconciliation talks between the Shia-dominated opposition and the Sunni monarchy have so far failed to bring an end to simmering unrest in the country, an American ally that hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.
While activists frequently clash with police, Al-Wefaq said the protests Saturday were called to demand a democratic transition “in which the people are the source of all powers.”
Demonstrators have been calling for wider-ranging democratization, entailing cabinets chosen by an elected parliament rather than appointed exclusively by the king. For its part, the government has said that it has implemented some reforms recommended by international investigators including the establishment of an ombudsman’s office in 2012.
But Maryam Khawaja, the acting president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, said that the human rights situation has deteriorated since 2011. The ombudsmen post, she said, poses a huge conflict of interest given that most torture cases have reportedly occurred at the Criminal Investigation Directorate, which along with the ombudsman's office fall under the jurisdiction of the Public Prosecution.
“The public prosecutors charged with investigating the allegations are themselves participating in the torture,” Khawaja said.
The ruling family launched a third round of dialogue with its opponents last month, but no political agreement is in sight. Khawaja blamed the stagnation on continued human rights violations committed by Bahraini authorities.
“When you have a situation in which people are still subject to arbitrary arrests, extrajudicial killings and disappearances, how can you expect any dialogue to be successful?” she said.
The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) — a panel formed by Bahrain's government to investigate charges of human rights abuses during the 2011 uprising —documented 46 deaths, 559 allegations of torture, and more than 4,000 cases of employees dismissed for participating in protests. The report concluded that certain abuses "could not have happened without the knowledge of higher echelons of the command structure."
Toby C. Jones, a Middle East historian and professor at Rutgers University, told Al Jazeera that Bahraini authorities are simply engaging in dialogue to placate international concerns. He said that the country’s Shia population is effectively isolated and powerless, with the government, for example, placing limitations on who can hold key positions in the Bahraini Defense Force, with reportedly no Shia personnel serving in the force.
“They say one thing to accommodate their global audience but the practice in Shia villages is continued oppression and apartheid,” he said. “Until we see tangible results such as the release of political prisoners, it's hard to take anything they say seriously.”
The uprising in Bahrain has been portrayed as a "Shia uprising" by government authorities, who often depict protesters' demands for political reform as Iranian-inspired subversion.
But Jones said that although the systematic discrimination faced by Shias has meant that the composition of opposition protests has been predominantly Shia, the movement itself is not sectarian in nature. "The core political demands being made have little to do with sectarian identity. At the heart of the reform movement are calls for democratic reforms and government transparency."
Meanwhile, U.S representatives Jim McGovern, D-Mass., and Hank Johnson, D-Ga., delivered speeches this week before Congress expressing solidarity with Bahrain’s protesters. McGovern said that the “the U.S. has a responsibility to ensure that the Bahraini government adheres to its human rights commitments and enacts meaningful reforms. These should include releasing political prisoners and ensuring accountability for torture.”
In his speech Friday, Johnson said: “It is disappointing that Bahrain, a close ally of the U.S. in the Persian Gulf, is engaging in torture, intimidation and repression against peaceful protesters.”
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed concern about reports of clashes between demonstrators and security forces on Friday, and urged the authorities to act in strict accordance with their international human rights obligations.
Kristian Coates, a fellow at think tank The Baker Institute, said the protests show the "root causes" of the anger that erupted into the 2011 uprising are still unresolved — but that the opposition is "unable to mobilize on a scale that would threaten large-scale instability of the type seen in 2011."
"Bahrain still lacks a comprehensive political settlement and any form of meaningful reconciliation and until these happen, protests will continue at a level the authorities can probably live with," he added.
Al Jazeera and wire services. Amel Ahmed contributed to this report.