By Phillip Walter Wellman
Riot police in Bahrain used tear gas and rubber bullets Monday to break up widespread protests inspired by the recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. Human rights groups report one person was killed and at least 10 others hospitalized by nightfall.
Despite a heavy crackdown by police, thousands of demonstrators participated in what organizers called a “Day of Rage” across Bahrain, a strategic American ally in the Persian Gulf.
Their main demands are for a new constitution, the release of political prisoners, stopping perceived discrimination against the country’s Shi’ite Muslims, and putting an end to the naturalization of foreign citizens.
The vice president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, Nabeel Rajab, monitored the situation through the day and says the demonstrators were peaceful.
“None of them [protesters] even took a stone or anything to throw, but the police will not wait for us to do anything anyway, they will attack us with rubber bullets, tear gas, with shotguns,” said Rajab. “Since last night, many people were injured, people transferred to hospital. The majority of people were not transferred to hospital because once they go to hospital the government will arrest them.”
By Monday afternoon, gunshots could be heard in a number of Shi’ite neighborhoods.
In the Budaiya district, police fired tear gas and rubber bullets down a street filled with women and children.
A resident who only wanted to be known as Awal was among the crowd.
“See what this is doing? The police is to help the people, not to beat the people,” said Awal.
Fifteen-year-old Zahra Abdul Ameer was also at the scene and needed to be rushed to a nearby house to be cared for.
“I was standing there and they threw something on us and this started to explode and we couldn’t breath the air,” said Zahra Abdul Ameer. “Then I started running and I didn’t see anything. The man brought me to this house and I was so tired. I was going to faint, then the woman gave me some water. I feel afraid.”
The interior ministry confirmed via Twitter that security forces had fired rubber bullets at demonstrators.
Nabeel Rajab from the Bahrain Center for Human Rights believes the handling of events will only prompt further demonstrations in the coming days.
“Unfortunately, the government doesn’t know how to deal with such events, but this is going to continue for the coming days until we get our demand.”
Shi’ites make up more than 70 percent of Bahrain’s population and say they are not given adequate benefits by the ruling Sunni minority,” said Rajab.
They also accuse King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa of issuing Bahraini passports to foreign Sunnis to reduce the Shi’ite majority.
Before Monday’s demonstrations, authorities in Bahrain announced they would give each family in the country about $2,600 (1,000 dinars). But many people said the handout was insufficient and decided to protest anyway.
The protests were scheduled for February 14 as it marks the anniversary of Bahrain’s 2002 constitution, which brought some democratic reforms such as an elected parliament.