Bahrain riot police fire tear gas at protesters

Washington has encouraged dialogue in the island nation, home to the US Navy`s 5th Fleet.

Updated: Jul 01, 2011, 08:21 AM IST

Dubai: Riot police in Bahrain fired tear gas and stun grenades on Thursday to disperse thousands of opposition supporters gathered near the square that was the epicentre of the nation`s Shi’ite-led demonstrations earlier this year, an activist said.

The violence is a setback to efforts by the tiny island`s Sunni rulers trying to open reconciliation talks with the Shi’ite opposition in the Gulf kingdom.

Activist Nabeel Rajab said the protesters at Manama`s Pearl Square chanted: "Down, down Hamad" — a reference to the Bahraini monarch. They also demanded that all demonstrators, opposition leaders and activists, detained during the deadly crackdown on the Shi’ite-led campaign for political freedom and greater rights, be released.

No injuries were immediately reported during Thursday`s demonstration.

The violence came a day after Bahrain`s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa announced the creation of an independent commission that will investigate allegations that protesters` rights were violated during the anti-government demonstrations that erupted in February.

The announcement was an apparent effort by the Sunni monarch to draw opposition groups into the government-sponsored talks, set to begin on Saturday.

Washington has encouraged dialogue in the island nation, home to the US Navy`s 5th Fleet, and had urged the monarchy to meet some of the opposition`s demands.

But the King`s appeal for dialogue got a cool reception from opposition groups. The leaders of the biggest Shi’ite party, Al Wefaq, have not yet decided whether they will join the talks.

Reports by Bahrain`s rights groups that another protester died on Thursday as a result of injuries he sustained during the unrest could further erode Wefaq`s appetite for reconciliation talks with the monarchy.

The death of 30-year-old protester Majid Ahmed Mohammed brings to 32 the number of those killed since February, when Bahrain`s Shi’ites — inspired by uprisings elsewhere in the Middle East — started a campaign to end the Sunni minority`s hold on power. Four people have died in custody.

Bahrain`s Health Ministry confirmed Mohammed`s death in a brief statement, which said he died on Thursday morning in a military hospital.

In another move to draw the reluctant Al Wefaq into the talks, authorities on Thursday halted bringing anti-government protesters to trial at a special tribunal with military prosecutors and transferred the cases to civilian courts, a lawyer said. The practice has been criticised as unfair by rights activists and the Gulf kingdom`s Western allies.

The special tribunal was set up in March, when Bahrain`s Sunni rulers imposed martial law to help quash protests by Shi’ites demanding political freedoms and greater rights. The trials of dozens of opposition figures, human rights activists and Shi’ite professionals continued even after the emergency laws were lifted earlier this month.

A lawyer for a doctor who is among 47 health professionals on trial after they treated injured protesters said the proceedings have been moved to civilian courts. The medical staff are charged with participating in an effort to topple Bahrain`s monarchy.

A hearing in the case of 20 doctors set for Thursday was cancelled, the lawyer said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of jeopardising clients in custody.

In his speech on Wednesday, the King said Bahrain is committed to reform and respecting human rights. But he accused the protesters of pushing the country into a "state of chaos" with the street marches and sit-ins during the turmoil.

The King said the government will not interfere in the commission`s probe into what he called the "unfortunate events" of February and March. The commission is to report its findings by October 30.

The chairman of the five-member international panel, Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni, on Thursday lauded the setting up of the commission.

"It is an important and a historic decision for an Arab Muslim country that has gone through a difficult time to have an independent investigation into what happened, irrespective of where the chips might fall," Bassiouni said.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, who has repeatedly spoken out about accusations of abuse by Bahraini authorities, welcomed the formation of the commission and called it a "major development in Bahrain" during a news conference in Geneva on Thursday.

Bureau Report