Bands of protesters in more than a dozen villages Friday defied Bahrain security forces and the government’s ban on demonstrations to press for the ouster of the country’s ruling family.
At least one person died, dozens were injured and some were arrested as protesters, mainly in Shiite Muslim villages, held rallies against the ruling Sunni Muslim dynasty, according to an opposition political party, human rights groups and media reports. Some protesters reportedly encountered tear gas or were shot at by security forces using birdshot.
Early Saturday, during a fierce sandstorm, groups of protesters broke the curfew and tried to reach the Pearl Square traffic circle, where they had camped for weeks before the government cracked down. But the protesters retreated when they heard that a fleet of police cars was approaching.
Since King Hamed ibn Isa Khalifa invoked emergency rule 10 days ago prohibiting rallies, residents have protested almost daily in their villages. But Friday’s rallies stemmed from an effort by hard-line opposition groups seeking the end of the dynasty, which members of the majority Shiite population assert has long discriminated against them, to have protesters leave villages and march on main roads to important landmarks.
The Bahraini government set up military and police cordons at the main roads into Shiite villages. By mid-morning, ski-masked soldiers in tanks and armored personnel carriers and riot police with batons, guns and tear gas had established checkpoints and taken up positions on the Budaiya highway, which threads together villages such as Sar, Bani Jamra and Duraz.
The streets were largely empty on what should have been a busy weekend shopping day. Pairs of fighter jets skimmed the highway and other Shiite areas.
But protests flared around 3 p.m., as groups of young men ranging in number from a few dozen to a few hundred gathered by mosques and cemeteries in villages and moved toward the blockades.
On the highway by Duraz, riot police surged down a street leading into town, firing tear gas. In the village, young men collected before a small Shiite mosque and walked down the main street toward the police, unarmed, some wearing scarves and white rags to shield themselves from the tear gas, whose acrid smell hung in the air.
They warned visitors that police were firing rubber bullets. With each round of tear gas, the front line ran back toward the square, an ebb and flow reportedly repeated in other villages.
In the village of Maameer, 71-year-old Isa Mohammed Ali died after inhaling tear gas, according to the opposition group Wefaq, which did not back the rallies. Ali’s family said emergency calls to the island nation’s main hospital, the Salmaniya Medical Center, which is surrounded by security forces, went unanswered. The Interior Ministry confirmed Ali’s death, and concluded, without an autopsy, that it was due to natural causes.
In a statement, the ministry said of the rallies: “Police forces were instructed to deal appropriately with all such gatherings to maintain safety, stability and security in Bahrain.”
Five to 10 people were arrested in the village of Samaheej, according to the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights.
Since the crackdown last week, pro-government news media have depicted the protests as the work of outside forces, a thinly veiled though still unsubstantiated reference to interference in the opposition movement by Bahrain’s Shiite neighbor, Iran.
Bahrain has cut phone ties and direct flights to Iran, Iraq and Lebanon. The pro-government English paper, the Gulf Daily News, quoted Bahrain’s foreign minister as saying that Lebanon’s Hezbollah is supporting discord and terrorism in the tiny monarchy, and that Persian Gulf countries plan to deport thousands of Lebanese Shiites for alleged ties to Hezbollah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.
In the villages, though, people spoke of the daily threats they live with under martial law. In Bani Jamra, a Shiite woman told of soldiers putting rifles in her face as she walked to the hospital and telling her to go back to Iran, as her frightened 9-year-old daughter cried beside her. Nearby, a group of young men built barricades of cinder block and plywood.
In Khamis, the father of 20-year-old Ibrahim Sabat said his family brought him home from a hospital despite a bullet wound because they feared he would be taken away by the police, as others have been.
Sabat’s father spoke next to a low building where the body of Hani Abdulaziz Jumah was being washed before his funeral. Jumah, a street cleaner, was chased by riot police on the evening of March 19 into an adjacent construction site, where he was shot at point-blank range in the left arm and knees and was beaten so badly that bone, blood and tissue were found on the floor and walls, according to Human Rights Watch.
Neighbors found him barely alive and took him to a hospital. Security forces then took him away. His family was denied contact with him, and was notified of his death several days later.
According to the Wefaq opposition group, at least 122 Bahrainis have gone missing since the crackdown.