OPPOSITION LEADERS ARRESTED IN BAHRAIN CRACKDOWN – as Tunisians protest against Clinton visit


THE Bahraini ruling class has arrested opposition leaders on charges including contact with foreign states and calling for the fall of the regime, said a military statement read out on state television on Thursday.

‘Several leaders of sedition who had called for the fall of the regime’ were arrested for being in contact with foreign states and instigating killings and vandalism, said the statement.

It did not say how many people were detained, nor did it name them.

A parliamentarian from the Shi’ite opposition alliance had earlier said that five hardline Shi’ite activists and one Sunni were rounded up during the night as part of a crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.

‘They were arrested in the night,’ said Al-Wefaq deputy leader Khalil Marzouk.

Among those arrested was Hassan Mashaima, a leader of the hardline Shi’ite Haq movement which is seeking to overthrow the Sunni monarchy that has ruled the Shi’ite-majority island state for 230 years.

Mashaima only returned to Manama from abroad on February 26 after terrorism charges against him were dropped as part of an earlier peace offering from the government to the opposition.

Activist and Haq member Abduljalil al-Singace, who was released in February after six months in jail, was also detained in the overnight round-up, Marzouk said.

In its statement, the Bahrain Defence Force said it was acting in accordance with martial law, which was announced on Tuesday, adding it would ‘take all legal measures’ against those arrested.

The arrests come a day after three protesters were killed when security forces firing tear gas and shotguns cleared out a month-old pro-democracy sit-in at Manama’s Pearl Square, according to the opposition.

Security forces surrounded Bahrain’s main hospital Thursday as the UN human rights chief warned that reported takeovers of medical centres violate international law, after a crackdown on protesters.

Empowered by state-of-emergency regulations announced Tuesday, shotgun-toting, white-helmeted police manned checkpoints around Manama’s Salmaniya Medical Centre on Thursday, questioning people but not preventing them from entering the hospital, a reporter said.

State TV had said that security forces had ‘cleared’ the hospital of ‘saboteurs’, after police firing tear gas and shotguns on Wednesday cleared out a pro-democracy sit-in at Manama’s Pearl Square.

Opposition leaders said three people were killed and dozens hurt in Wednesday’s raid, the worst day of violence since activists took to the streets last month.

Meanwhile, opposition MP Khalil al-Marzouk said that Doctor Ali al-Ekri was arrested on Thursday at Salmaniya hospital.

A state television anchor had earlier mentioned Ekri as someone spreading ‘fabrications’ about the conditions of the hospital.

Rights groups have accused the security forces of preventing those injured in the operation from reaching hospitals and of beating medics trying to collect the wounded from the streets.

Amina Hasan, a doctor at a medical centre in Sitra, south of Manama, said that the centre had on Thursday received 15 people suffering shotgun wounds inflicted in confrontations on Wednesday.

She added that they had not been able to reach the centre on Wednesday because the roads were blocked by security forces.

Bahrain’s Health Minister Nizar Baharna, a Shi’ite, announced his resignation after police allegedly burst into a Manama hospital on Wednesday.

‘There are reports of arbitrary arrests, killings, beatings of protesters and of medical personnel, and of the takeover of hospitals and medical centres by various security forces,’ UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said in a statement.

‘This is shocking and illegal conduct. Police and armed forces must immediately leave healthcare facilities and cease their harassment and intimidation of health professionals,’ she said.

The International Federation for Human Rights said in an email that it had received reports of Bahraini ‘doctors routinely threatened with violence to themselves and families and arrest, by unknown phone calls’.

It also cited accounts of government forces surrounding Bahraini hospitals and that they had ‘attacked doctors trying to help the wounded’.

Amnesty International has also reported cases of people in Bahrain injured in clashes being blocked by police from entering medical facilities, and of security forces targeting medical workers.

Meanwhile, the stock market in Bahrain re-opened on Thursday, but life in the small quarter which hosts banks and multinational companies, earning Manama its reputation as a Gulf financial centre, was at an almost complete stop.

Security forces were stationed at the Financial Harbour area, which had been occupied for three days by protesters until the security forces cleared them on Wednesday, while banks and many major businesses were closed.

Small traders such as grocery stores and mobile phone shops re-opened and goods trucks started in the early morning to trickle into and out of the central wholesale market near Pearl Square.

The square was the focal point of anti-regime protests that began over a month ago, but the tent city built there by protesters was destroyed when riot police, backed by tanks, stormed the area on Wednesday.

The Shi’ite-led opposition said three protesters were killed, while the government said two policemen were killed by hit-and-run motorists. About 16 people have been killed since the protests began.

National Guard troops blocked roads leading to the Pearl roundabout as scores of cleaners cleared the streets of rubble.

A stage with a backdrop reading ‘we will stay here until the regime falls’, from which protesters had denounced the government, had been demolished.

Army tanks, which remained stationed next to the shore some 600 metres (yards) away, appeared set to remain in the area for a while as troops set up large tents.

l Hundreds of Tunisians marched through central Tunis Thursday to protest the visit of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton but no incidents were reported.

It was the third such demonstration in three days against Clinton, who earlier Thursday opened talks here with interim President Foued Mebazaa, who replaced ousted Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

The demonstrators chanted ‘Hillary Clinton, you are not welcome, get out’, ‘No colonisation after the revolution,’ and ‘No to US tutelage on Islamic soil’, as they warned against any US intervention in neighbouring revolt-wracked Libya.

‘She came before the upcoming elections to impose the US strategy on Tunisia. But dream on. We brought down a dictatorship and we also know how to protect our country,’ said 60-year-old Naziha Bahri.

The new caretaker government has scheduled elections for mid-July.

Meanwhile, another group of 30 to 50 demonstrators burned a picture of the chief US diplomat outside the foreign ministry and chanted anti-US slogans.

Police and army troops were deployed in the area.

Earlier, Clinton pledged to help Tunisia create jobs and undertake reforms to keep the momentum behind the uprising that overthrew Ben Ali two months ago.

She said an international donors conference would help to focus minds on Tunisia’s needs.

New government officials and other Tunisians understand ‘we need a plan for economic development, for jobs’, Clinton told reporters during a tour of Tunisian Red Crescent offices.

Apart from Mebazza, Clinton will also hold talks with Foreign Minister Mouldi Kefi and interim Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi. And her visit will take in meetings with young people who took part in the mass protests.