Protesters clash with security forces following a rally to mark the second… (Mohammed Shaikh / AFP/Getty…)
Clashes erupted in Bahrain early Thursday, leaving a teenager dead and tensions soaring as protesters marked the second anniversary of the continued uprising against the Persian Gulf monarchy.
Bahraini police said a young man was fatally injured as officers fired birdshot to defend themselves from hundreds of what they termed “rioters” who attacked police with steel rods and Molotov cocktails. Police fired warning shots before shooting, Public Security Chief Tariq Hassan said.
The opposition countered that the youth was the latest victim of “the brutal and inhumane practices” of police against peaceful protesters. Government forces “targeted” the 16-year-old at close range, seriously injuring his stomach, the Wefaq opposition party said in a statement Thursday.
The warring accounts of how the teen lost his life in the village of Daih are the latest sign of the profound divisions roiling Bahrain, where protesters continue to agitate for greater democracy and more political voice for Shiite Muslims in a nation ruled by a Sunni Muslim monarchy.
For protesters, "the situation is exactly where it was two years ago," said Maryam Khawaja, acting president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. "The number of people taking to the streets is massive. And the oppression is continuing in the same way."
[Updated, 2:50 p.m. Feb. 14: Bahraini police later said that a policeman had also died late Thursday after being hit by a “projectile” shot by rioters in the village of Sehla. The attack is being investigated, the Interior Ministry said in a statement.]
The eruption of demonstrations two years ago was met with rubber bullets, tear gas, torture and arrests. At least 35 people died in connection with the unrest and the ensuing police crackdown over the course of two months, according to an independent report later commissioned by the government. Bahraini activists say scores more were killed by government forces in later months, including 13 children.
The king promised reform after the independent report was released, spurring new training for police, investigations into alleged abuses and other changes. Human rights groups and activists charge that despite talk of progress, torture and repression have continued.
Some police officers have been tried over the killings, but higher officials have not been held accountable, rights groups say. Dissidents have been jailed solely for expressing their views or going to peaceful marches, Amnesty International said Thursday, calling the detainees “prisoners of conscience.”
State officials, in turn, charge that protesters have violently attacked police and sought to destabilize the country. Bahraini officials have accused Iran of stirring up the unrest, despite the fact that the independent report found no evidence that Tehran stoked the protests.
Renewed talks suggest a glimmer of hope: The government launched a national dialogue with the opposition on Sunday, which Wefaq has joined in despite its suspicions.
The dialogue aims “to resolve the political deadlock in Bahrain,” Mariam Zainal of the state Information Affairs Authority wrote in an email to The Times. Government officials, lawmakers and political societies “were all invited to take part with no ceiling on the topics to be discussed regarding political reform.”
However, many activists remain skeptical that the meetings will produce any real change, and some radicalized factions have sworn off any dialogue at all. Chants against the talks were reportedly heard in the streets Thursday. Divisions between Sunnis and Shiites appear to be deepening, one expert warned.
In universities, “Shiites and Sunnis are sitting in different areas in class. Some restaurants are now segregated.… The kind of sectarian language used on Twitter and in chat groups is shocking,” said Geneive Abdo, a fellow in the Stimson Center Middle East program. “Many Bahrainis will tell you there was never this kind of public sectarianism before the uprisings began.”
Government officials heralded Thursday as the anniversary not of the protests, but of the National Action Charter, an earlier blueprint for reform that banned torture and enshrined freedom of belief as a right. The charter was “a turning point in the kingdom’s history that laid the foundation for innumerable positive developments,” Zainal wrote.
However, opposition activists complain those promises were not carried out either -- one reason the 2011 protests were timed for a decade after Bahrainis voted on the charter.