DUBAI (Reuters) - Bahrain vowed on Tuesday to crack down harder on anti-government protests as a leading opposition figure said the government had put a stop to talks on addressing the political grievances that fuelled last year’s pro-democracy uprising.
Bahraini media have reported a new security plan to “restore order” to the Sunni-ruled Gulf monarchy and, in recent days, authorities have detained a leading activist and warned a top Shi‘ite cleric to stop alleged incitement to violence.
The moves coincide with a Saudi push for a Gulf union, likely to be discussed at a May 14 summit of Gulf leaders in Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia, already heavily influential in the smaller fellow-Sunni monarchy, is keen to see Bahrain stem the upsurge of Shi‘ite and Islamist resentment that was a large part of last year’s uprising, and sent troops to help quell the revolt.
Bahraini government spokesman Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Mubarak Al Khalifa told Reuters: “Because of the escalation in violence, we are looking into the perpetrators and people who use print, broadcast and social media to encourage illegal protest and violence around the country.”
“If applying the law means tougher action, then so be it,” he added.
Asked about the dialogue with the opposition, he said opposition parties must first declare they are prepared for talks without preconditions.
“BACK TO SQUARE ONE”
“This escalation is not good for the country, it will take us back to square one,” said Abduljalil Khalil, a senior member of the leading opposition party Wefaq who was involved in meetings this year with royal court minister Khaled bin Ahmed.
“The talks have stopped, so the authorities are really moving to another phase of the security approach,” he said. “I don’t know if it was the hardliners in the family or from outside, but at any rate the outcome now is that everything has stopped.”
A cabinet statement on Sunday warned clerics against incitement to violence, sectarianism, harming the economy and insulting institutions of state.
A government adviser said the comments were directed against Sheikh Isa Qassim, a leading Shi‘ite cleric who led a mass protest some 100,000 people in March and in January called on protesters to “crush” policeman who attacked women.
Wefaq’s Khalil said any move against Qassim, such as banning him from preaching, would inflame the Shi‘ite opposition and would indicate that government hardliners “really want to burn the country” to maintain the status quo.
Clashes between police and youth protesters in Shi‘ite villages have worsened this year.
Last week a parliamentarian announced a new Interior Ministry plan to deal with the protests, though the ministry was not able to respond immediately to a request for details.
Bahrain’s status as a banking and tourism hub is under threat from the continued unrest. Economic growth more than halved in 2011, and even weekend Saudi revelers seeking escape from the kingdom’s strict social controls have dried up.
Tension rose in the run-up to last month’s Formula One Grand Prix, when world media got a close glimpse of protests that the government wants confined to hidden Shi‘ite neighborhoods.
“Since Formula One there are around 200 people still held and there have been around 150 people wounded, about 60 of them from birdshot,” said Mohammed al-Maskati, head of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights.
Nabeel Rajab, a key protest leader who heads the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, has been held since Saturday on charges of organizing illegal marches, and prosecutors are weighing further charges of inciting rioting via Twitter.
Rajab’s 140,000 followers on the social media network make him one of the most widely known activists in the Arab world.
The Interior Ministry says 15 policemen have been wounded by three separate homemade bombs within the last month.
Wefaq says riot police attacks on protesters have taken the death toll since the unrest began last year to 81, although the government questions the attribution of many of those deaths.
It says that, since martial law ended last June, only one person has been killed by live fire, from an unknown assailant, and has neither confirmed nor denied opposition allegations that security forces use birdshot pellets on protesters.
Justin Gengler, a researcher on Bahrain based in Qatar, said the government had ditched dialogue in favor of a security crackdown to appease Sunni hardliners and avoid demands by other Sunnis for action on corruption and political reform.
“They do not want Sunnis and Shi‘ites at the same table, but they can at least appeal to those Sunnis who want the harsher security response,” he said, noting a recent Sunni call for the veteran prime minister to stand down - a stock Shi‘ite demand.
Gengler said Saudi Arabia was pressuring the government to take steps to end the turmoil. “The talk about union is a way to pressure the Bahrainis to get their house in order,” he said.
Editing by Kevin Liffey