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While leaders across the Middle East were toppled or forced to make concessions amid mass protests in 2011, calls for democratic reform in Bahrain, a tiny island off the coast of Saudi Arabia, were quashed.
But the protests resumed earlier this year. Today, in the midst of heightening clashes between pro-democracy groups and the government, Bahrain temporarily banned all public demonstrations and rallies, the most extreme step taken since imposing martial law during the initial uprisings nearly a year and a half ago.
The move, which threatens legal action against any group seen backing rallies or demonstrations, places heightened pressure on Shiite Muslim groups leading the protests in the Sunni-Muslim-governed nation and could potentially bring about complications with the United States and other Western allies.
Bahrain hosts the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, and the US has been reluctant to take a strong stance against its ally's actions in the past, according to The Christian Science Monitor.
Between 50 and 60 people have been killed since the first demonstrations in February 2011. The New York Times reports that as protesters continue to clash with the government with few results, the “standoff has deteriorated into ever more violent, sometimes deadly confrontations.”
In the last two months, two teenagers have been killed by the security services, and a 19-year-old police officer was killed in what the authorities said was an attack on one of their patrols. Last week, another police officer died of injuries he sustained in April in what the government called a “domestic terrorist attack,” a term frequently used for protests.
Dr. Shaikh Khalid bin Khalifa Al Khalifa, the foreign affairs chairman, said the government had little choice but to impose the ban. "Rallies that call for the downfall of the regime and attack the leadership are unconstitutional," Mr. Khalifa said, according to the Gulf Daily News.
"Enough is enough. Misuse of freedom of expression has been going on for a very long time and people are tired," another government official, Abdulrahman Bumajeed, told the newspaper.
However, human rights groups disagree, and Amnesty International called for an immediate lifting of the ban.
“Even in the event of sporadic or isolated violence, once an assembly is under way, the authorities cannot simply declare a blanket prohibition on all protests,” Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa deputy director, told The New York Times.
Shiites, who make up nearly 70 percent of the Bahraini population, claim they face systemic discrimination from the government, led by members of the Sunni minority.
“The Sunni monarchy has made a series of concessions – including giving more powers to the elected parliament – but opposition groups say the reforms do little to loosen the ruling family's grip on power,” The Associated Press reports.
The government’s decision to ban demonstrations appears to target the most visible opposition and Shiite political group, Al Wefaq. The group has a rally planned for Friday, AP reports.
The interior minister, Sheikh Rashid bin Abdullah Al Khalifa, said rallies are “a major threat to the safety of the public” associated with “violence, rioting, and attacks on public and private property,” according to the Financial Times. Al Wefaq was specifically cited as a repeat violator.
Some say the country has faced little notable pressure to change because the Bahraini government has powerful allies like the US and Saudi Arabia.
Jane Kinninmont, a senior research fellow at Chatham House in London, told the Monitor last month that “It's hard to see any real willingness to compromise [on the part of the government], and I think if they're really just expecting the opposition to compromise, it's not likely to be successful. I don't see any real strategy for dealing with the root causes of the unrest.”
“The opposition says the government is not interested in any meaningful reform, resorting instead to continuing repression via police and judicial action, including the jailing of leading rights activists. Attempts to launch a dialogue between the government and opposition have failed,” reports the Financial Times.
Earlier this month the United Nations Human Rights Council recommended Bahrain work to improve its record on freedom of expression. However, Brian Dooley writes in Foreign Policy that the government has taken its own approach to interpreting such guidance.
The Bahraini government seems to understand freedom of expression a bit like Lance Armstrong understands clean cycling. Like Lance, it prefers to play by its own rules and attack critics rather than accept normal standards. The Kingdom has invented a curious definition of free expression where criticizing members of the ruling family on Twitter can land you in court. The Bahraini regime's credibility is as damaged as that of world cycling – the government needs to implement drastic measures that go beyond public relations to restore international trust.