Bahrain Shiites hold first mass rally since crackdown

Jun 11, 2011

DUBAI — Thousands of Shiite Bahrainis rallied Saturday answering a call from their largest opposition group, Al-Wefaq, in the first demonstration since a mid-march crackdown on Shiite-led pro-democracy protests.

The rally, staged under the banner “Bahrain, homeland for all” in the Shiite village of Sar, 10 days after a state of emergency was lifted, had received the nod from authorities, Al-Wefaq politician ex-MP Hadi al-Moussawi told AFP.

“The ministry of interior has been informed, and there was no objection,” he said by telephone, adding that police stayed away from the immediate vicinity of the venue, as demonstrators spilled into neighboring streets.

“This presence in the street is to tell the authorities that we still demand political change… Our slogan is: ‘The people want to reform the regime’,” Moussawi said.

Shiites, who form the majority in the kingdom ruled by the Sunni Al-Khalifa dynasty, had led a month-long protest inspired by uprisings which toppled the autocratic leaders of Tunisia and Egypt.

Authorities backed by troops that rolled into Bahrain from fellow Gulf nations quelled the protest, and security forces launched a massive campaign of arrests against activists, as well as doctors, medics and teachers accused of backing protesters.

Authorities said 24 people, including four policemen, were killed in the unrest. The opposition said scores were arrested, amid wide claims of torture, while hundreds were dismissed from their jobs.

“No one was left out in the (government’s) revenge,” Moussawi said. “These people came to express their rejection. The punishment inflicted on the people by the authorities made them believe that there is not much more to lose.”

At the rally, the leader of Al-Wefaq, cleric Sheikh Ali Salman, described the recent events as a “grim black three months that left deep wounds in the body of the homeland.”

“(But) it only strengthened the determination of the people to voice their legitimate demands and cemented their belief in the need for real reform,” he said, according to text posted on the Al-Wefaq page of Facebook.

He did not appear to budge on the initial demands of the opposition which called for a “real” constitutional monarchy, topped by vesting the elected chamber with exclusive legislative and regulatory powers, redrawing electoral constituencies to allow for “fair polls” and an elected government.

He also extended a hand to the Sunnis, slamming as a “big lie” the branding of the protest demands as a “move to establish a Shiite Islamic state.”

“We want a civic and a democratic state… My dear Sunnis, let us put hand in hand to advance our political system, build our nation and safeguard the future of our children,” he added.

Meanwhile, King Hamad said on Saturday the national dialogue he announced on May 31 on the eve of the lifting of the state of emergency would be led by parliament chief Khalifa Dhahrani, the official BNA news agency reported.

Making the talks offer, the monarch had called for “all necessary steps to prepare for a serious dialogue, comprehensive and without preconditions,” adding that it should “start from July 1.”

Al-Wefaq welcomed the offer.

BNA on Saturday quoted King Hamad as saying Dhahrani was an elected MP who “represents the will of the people,” and that he had been tasked with preparing and launching the dialogue.

Copyright © 2011 AFP. All rights reserved.

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