x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Bahrain king defends state of emergency as Pearl monument torn down

After midday prayers thousands of protesters gathered for demonstrations. Large numbers of security forces could be seen heading towards Shiite neighbourhoods in armoured vehicles and carrying shotguns.

The statue in the centre of Pearl Square was torn down yesterday. Reuters
The statue in the centre of Pearl Square was torn down yesterday. Reuters

MANAMA // Thousands defied a state of emergency yesterday to take part in protests and funerals as the government destroyed a famous Bahraini landmark that had become a symbol of the anti-government movement.

Last night, Sheikh Khaled Al Khalifa, the foreign minister, said three or four Gulf states were sending in more troops and the forces would remain in the kingdom as long as it takes to restore order.

"We look with all confidence to the return of normal life in Bahrain," Sheikh Khaled said. "We know dialogue is our path."

The king defended the state of emergency, saying it was needed to allow the sides to negotiate. "Security and stability represent the true platform to pave the way for national dialogue," King Hamad said during a visit from the UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdulla bin Zayed, the Bahrain News Agency reported.

The emergency law has led to a curfew for certain parts of Manama and a ban on public gatherings.

The destruction of the monument in Pearl Roundabout came as the country's most senior Shiite cleric warned that the government's use of force to suppress the protests had created a "deep and dangerous" wound between the government and the people.

After midday prayers thousands of protesters gathered for demonstrations. Large numbers of security forces could be seen heading towards Shiite neighbourhoods in armoured vehicles and carrying shotguns.

Three protesters and three members of the security forces have died since the government introduced a three-month state of emergency to stop protests, which have called for a more democratic system and an end to discrimination against Shiites.

Two Gulf countries yesterday announced military deployments to Bahrain. Qatar confirmed it was contributing to the Peninsula Shield force which arrived on the island on Monday to "restore order and security", a Qatari military official told the Qatar news agency.

Meanwhile, Kuwait's ambassador to Bahrain said the Kuwaiti navy planned to send ships into Bahraini waters to offer protection, Kuwait's Watan news service reported.

Sheikh Isa Qassim used his Friday sermon to condemn the arrival of foreign troops in Bahrain, which were invited by King Hamad and include 1,000 Saudi soldiers and 500 UAE police officers.

"We would have been proud to see the Gulf military forces marching to help our brothers in Gaza, instead they have made a big mistake by marching towards a peaceful and unarmed people demanding their legitimate rights in peaceful ways," the cleric told a crowd of thousands at Al Sadiq Mosque in Diraz.

He urged people to remain peaceful in their calls for "substantial and meaningful reforms".

"They can use tanks and planes to smash our bodies, but will never break our souls and our will for reforms," Sheikh Isa said.

After the sermon finished, the crowd gathered outside the mosque for a protest that lasted about 20 minutes.

"This shows people are not scared of the tanks and troops on the street," said Sayed Mohammed, 27, an auditor for KPMG who attended the protest.

As the sermon took place, the towering structure in Pearl Roundabout, where the protest movement's vast camp was stormed by police on Wednesday morning, was being reduced to rubble.

The monument to Bahrain's pearl diving history was built in the early 1980s to mark a GCC conference in Manama. The six concrete dhow sails represented the GCC members while the giant pearl at the top signified unity.

On the island of Sitra, which has been targeted by security forces in recent days, the funeral of Ahmed Farhan, a fisherman, was delayed until the afternoon as the family waited for the health ministry to release his body, local politicians said.

Mourners carrying his picture followed a car containing his flag-covered coffin. A helicopter buzzed overhead and tanks lined the entrance to Sitra.

Images and videos showing the horrific head wound that killed the 30-year-old after security forces blocked off the village on Tuesday have been widely circulated by mobile phones and on social networking websites.

Opposition politicians have accused security forces of entering Shiite villages and using tear gas, rubber bullets and shotguns to attack protesters in the last week. After the state of emergency was announced, members of the opposition were arrested and hospitals and medical centres have been taken over by the police and army, sparking international condemnation.

The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, told King Hamad on Thursday that the force used by his government might be breaking international law.

Mr Ban "expressed his deepest concern over reports of excessive and indiscriminate use of force by the security forces and police in Bahrain against unarmed civilians, including, allegedly, against medical personnel", a UN statement said.

A prominent Bahraini lawyer described the law under which the government introduced its "state of safety" as being open to a "very elastic interpretation which is being misused".

"It is meant for when there is real danger, not demonstrations," said Hasan Radhi, who sits on the board of trustees of the Bahrain Chamber for Dispute Resolution, which deals with high-level financial disputes.

Manama city centre was relatively quiet throughout yesterday with only a few cars on some of the main roads. Armoured personnel carriers and tanks remained stationed along many of the primary arteries, including King Faisal Road, which runs along the Manama coast.

* With additional reporting by Zoi Constantine in Manama, Agence France-Presse and Reuters