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Protests planned for Bahrain despite ban

The protests are aimed at defying emergency rule invoked by Bahrain's monarch, including the cordoning off Shiite neighborhoods and villages, a ban on marches and a curfew, a human rights worker says.

March 25, 2011|By Neela Banerjee, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Manama, Bahrain — Critics of the Bahrain government have called for widespread rallies Friday in defiance of the country's recent imposition of martial law, raising the possibility of further violence nine days after a bloody crackdown on protesters and opposition leaders.

Nine rallies are being planned around Manama, the capital, said Mohammed Meskati, president of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, which is serving as an information clearinghouse for organizers in hiding for fear of arrest.

The protests are aimed at defying key aspects of the three-month emergency rule invoked last week by King Hamed ibn Isa Khalifa, including the cordoning off of many neighborhoods and villages by security forces, a ban on marches and a curfew, Meskati said.

Demonstrators apparently plan to gather on main roads. Some plan to march on the capital's Pearl Square traffic circle, which served as a base camp in earlier protests; the Salmaniya Medical Complex, the small island nation's largest hospital; and the airport.

The youth society issued a plea to the government and protesters urging them to refrain from violence. Protesters have been asked to carry flowers and the Bahraini and Gulf Cooperation Council flags. But Meskati and other analysts said they worried that a heavy-handed government response could be met with violence by some protesters, who were largely peaceful, if sometimes provocative, in the weeks of demonstrations that roiled Bahrain starting in mid-February.

"I don't know if the demonstrations will be violent or not," he said. "They might turn violent if the security forces attack them."

The nation's Shiite Muslim majority, which feels marginalized by the Sunni-led government, has been rallying for weeks in favor of fundamental reforms. After weathering sporadic clashes between protesters and security forces and the shutdown of the country's financial center, the Bahraini government began its rout of the opposition early last week.

Saudi and other troops entered the country to bolster the Sunni monarchy and the emergency rule was established. Security forces were sent into restive, largely Shiite villages and protest hubs in the capital to disperse demonstrations and round up opponents of the government.

Bahrain's seven largest opposition groups do not back the rallies, for fear of worsening an already fraught situation, said a representative of Wefaq, the main opposition party, and it remains unclear whether many people will turn out. The call for protests has come instead from the Coalition for a Bahraini Republic, a union of hard-line Shiite opposition parties, and other smaller groups.

The seven major opposition parties have sought a transition to a constitutional monarchy from the royal family's absolute rule. The more radical opposition groups seek the ouster of the Khalifa dynasty.

Over the last week, the state clampdown has tightened, a worrying sign of how the government might respond to protests Friday, analysts and human rights advocates said. The national monument in Pearl Square was demolished.

Ski-masked soldiers in Humvees and police have blocked off roads leading into Shiite areas, scaring many people into staying home, employers said. Opposition leaders have been arrested and held without charge, and others are rounded up nightly, human rights groups said.

Clashes between residents and security forces occur almost daily in villages. The curfew, from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m., remains in effect for parts of Manama.

Early Thursday night, automatic weapons fire broke out in the center of the capital near a Shiite area.

neela.banerjee@latimes.com

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