MANAMA (Reuters) - Some 20,000 protesters marched near the Bahraini capital of Manama on Friday, shouting anti-government slogans and vowing to stick to their calls for democratic reforms in the Gulf island ruled by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa.
“Down, down Hamad,” they chanted, waving Bahraini flags and raising their fists in the air as police helicopters buzzed overhead.
Small-scale protests and clashes with security forces have erupted almost daily outside Manama, in the villages where Bahrain’s majority Shi‘ite population mostly resides.
Tensions have been simmering since the Sunni-ruled kingdom, which hosts the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, quashed mass pro-democracy protests this March. Anxieties are also now rising ahead of a by-election scheduled for later this September.
The election aims to fill seats of parliamentarians from the largest Shi‘ite party, Wefaq, who resigned en masse when Bahrain used force against the protests. The government said the demonstrations had a sectarian agenda instigated by its regional Shi‘ite rival Iran.
The Friday March, organised by Wefaq, was entitled, “No backing down, we are insistent on our demands.”
The mostly Shi‘ite-led protesters have demanded a greater share in government as well more powers for the legislature, whose authority is neutered by an upper council appointed by the king.
The government tried to respond by launching a National Dialogue to initiate reforms, but many Shi‘ites and opposition figures criticised the talks as cosmetic. Wefaq eventually pulled out of the dialogue.
Friday’s march comes a week after thousands took to the streets to protest the death of a 14-year-old boy who activists said was killed after being hit by a tear gas canister at a protest outside Manama. The government denied police were responsible for the boy’s death.
Some residents worried the death could be a trigger for more clashes in Bahrain, a tiny country that sits on the fault lines of tension between Sunni Gulf Arab states and Shi‘ite Iran. Saudi Arabian and UAE forces entered Bahrain earlier this year to help the government crush mass protests, citing fears of outside interference that indirectly pointed at Iran.
Protesters on Friday wrote out the Arabic word “Salmiya” along the sidewalk where protesters were marching. The word, which means, “Peaceful,” was spelled out using empty tear gas canisters and sound grenades which litter the streets after riot police break up village protests.
Pumping their fists, protesters also shouted out “Thank you, thank you” as a speaker recited the names of some 47 medics who had treated demonstrators in February and were arrested during the March crackdown on charges ranging from incitement to storing weapons, which they denied.
The 14 medics who still had not been released from prison started a hunger strike earlier this month, prompting many other jailed activists and Shi‘ite leaders to join them.
The government released the medics on Wednesday even as investigators said more than 80 other detainees were also refusing food.
Writing by Erika Solomon; Editing by Jon Hemming