x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

More freedoms promised in Bahrain ahead of protests

As Shiite-led opposition groups and others have joined calls for demonstrations today, Bahrain's leaders promised to expand media freedoms.

Police break up protests in Bahrain

Bahrain's leaders promised yesterday to expand media freedoms in another apparent attempt to quell plans for the first major anti-government protests in the Gulf since the uprising in Egypt.

Shiite-led opposition groups and others have joined calls for demonstrations today, the anniversary of Bahrain's 2002 constitution that brought some pro-democracy reforms such as an elected parliament.

Security forces were deployed in malls and other key spots around Bahrain yesterday in a clear warning against holding the rallies, but a prominent human rights activist predicted "chaos and bloodshed" if attempts are made to crush the planned demonstrations.

Bahrain's leaders, meanwhile, have stepped in with concessions to try to defuse the protests.

Government media monitors began talks yesterday with publishers and others to draft new rules to limit state controls. The official Bahrain News Agency, meanwhile, launched a new multimedia service that includes social media applications to seek more outreach.

It was unclear, however, whether activists and rights groups will be satisfied with the proposed changes after facing widespread blocks on websites and blogs.

Last week, Bahrain's king, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, granted each Bahraini family the equivalent of nearly US$2,700 (Dh9,900) in an apparent bid to calm tensions.

But the demands go deeper than economics.

In an open letter to the king, the independent Bahrain Centre for Human Rights called for wide-ranging reforms to avoid a "worst-case scenario," including dismantling the security forces, prosecution of state officials for abuses and the release of 450 jailed activists, religious leaders and others.

The rights centre's president, Nabeel Rajab, urged the king to "avoid the fatal mistake committed by similar regimes in Tunisia and Egypt" and not try to crush the planned protests. He warned further pressures by authorities could push the country into "chaos or bloodshed."

On Friday, hundreds of Bahrainis and Egyptian nationals went out in the streets chanting and dancing near the Egyptian Embassy in the capital, Manama, moments after Hosni Mubarak stepped down as president. Bahraini authorities quickly set up roadblocks to contain the crowds.

The chances for confrontation in Bahrain have been further elevated by the trial of 25 Shiite activists, including two charged in absentia, accused of plotting against the state. The detainees have alleged police torture and claimed they were made to sign forced confessions, but the court has moved ahead with the proceedings. The next session is scheduled for February 24.

Bahrain's Al Wasat newspaper reported yesterday that one of the suspects had a heart attack while in custody and was hospitalised.