Manama: Riot police fired tear gas and stun grenades at demonstrators Wednesday after clashes erupted just hours before the release of an independent report on Bahrain`s harsh crackdowns on the largest Arab Spring unrest in the Gulf.
The unrest outside the Bahraini capital Manama reflects the tense backdrop in the tiny island kingdom ahead of the highly anticipated report, which includes probes into alleged abuses by security forces after the country`s majority Shiites opened their most sustained uprising for greater rights.
The special investigation commission, which was green lighted by Bahrain`s Sunni monarchy in a bid to ease tensions, has spent months interviewing thousands of witnesses, officials and others about the chaotic and bloody months after protests began in February. Details of the report, which will focus on the period between Feb. 14 and March 30, have been a tightly held secret.
But conciliatory statements by the government in advance suggests authorities believe it could cast a harsh light on the tactics used against demonstrators and already noted in rights groups allegations: widespread arrests, purges from workplaces and universities, destruction of Shiite mosques and jail house abuses.
At least 35 people have been killed in violence related to the uprising, including several members of the security forces.
The latest street battles broke out after a 44-year-old man died when his car crashed into a house earlier in the day. Protesters say he swerved to avoid security vehicles. Bahrain`s government said it has opened an investigation.
Although Bahrain`s bloodshed and chaos is small in comparison with the huge upheavals across the Arab world — including renewed protests in Egypt — the island`s conflict resonates from Tehran to Washington.
Bahrain is a critical US ally as home to the US Navy`s 5th Fleet. Washington has taken a cautious line because of what`s at stake: urging Bahrain`s leaders to open more dialogue with the opposition, but avoiding too much public pressure.
There are signs of growing impatience with Bahrain`s rulers from some US lawmakers. A $53 million arms deal with Bahrain is on hold until the upcoming report is examined.
For Gulf leaders, led by powerful Saudi Arabia, the showdown in Bahrain is seen as a firewall to keep pro-reform protests from spreading further across the region. Gulf rulers have rallied behind the kingdom`s embattled monarchy and sent in military reinforcements during the height of the crackdowns.
Bahrain is also viewed as a front-line fight against Iranian influence. The Sunni Arab monarchy and influential sheiks consider any significant gains by Bahrain`s Shiites as a beachhead for Shiite powerhouse Iran, which has called the Saudi-led military units in Bahrain an "occupation force."
Earlier this month, Bahraini authorities accused five people of links to a suspected terror cell connected to Iran`s Revolutionary Guard, whose alleged targets included attacks on the Saudi Embassy and the causeway linking Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Although there had been no direct evidence of links between Bahrain`s Shiites and Tehran, the claims underscore the intensity of the Gulf`s worries.
The fissures in Bahrain are not new. For decades, Shiites have pushed for a greater voice in a country where they account for 70 percent of the 525,000 people but are generally blocked from top political and government posts.
Following the start of the Arab Spring, Shiite-led protesters began occupying a square in the capital Manama in February — just days after crowds in Cairo`s Tahrir Square celebrated the downfall of Hosni Mubarak.
Weeks later, security forces stormed Manama`s Pearl Square, tore down the landmark six-pronged monument at its center and imposed martial law. Hundreds of activists, political leaders and Shiite professionals such as lawyers, doctors, nurses and athletes were jailed and tried on anti-state crimes behind closed doors in a special security court that was set up during emergency rule.
Three protesters have been sentenced to death and several prominent opposition leaders were sentenced to life in prison.
Bahrain`s rulers have offered some concessions, including giving more powers to Parliament and opening up a so-called "national dialogue" on reforms. But authorities have rebuffed a key protest demand for the monarchy to give up control of top government posts and share privileges.
As part of the attempts to quell protests, Bahrain in July approved an international commission to look into the protests and crackdowns.
The five-member panel`s chairman, Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni, an Egyptian-born professor of international criminal law and a former member of UN human rights panels, praised the kingdom for a historic decision.
It was unprecedented, Bassiouni said, for an Arab Muslim country that has gone through "a difficult time" to have an independent investigation "irrespective of where the chips might fall."
In a statement Monday, Bahrain said it expects the report by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry will be critical.
"Regrettably, there have been instances of excessive force and mistreatment of detainees," the government said, adding that prosecutors have charged 20 members of the security forces for alleged abuse of protesters during the uprising.
It also signaled more punishment for the abuses, saying the 20 prosecutions that had been filed are "in no way the limit of the steps that will be taken."
A group of Bahrain rights groups, meanwhile, issued its own report on the unrest, accusing authorities of "systematic" abuses and "unceasing human rights violations."