MANAMA (Reuters) - Bahraini opposition parties, launching a week-long ‘sit-in’ for political reforms at a mass rally, swore on Sunday to take their campaign to the centre of last year’s democracy protest in the capital Manama.
“This is a dress rehearsal for the return. We will return! We will return! Soon our sit-in will not be here but at the Pearl Roundabout,” said poetess Ayat al-Qormozi, who became a face of the Arab Spring movement after she was jailed for reading out a poem criticizing the king at Pearl Roundabout.
She was addressing a crowd of over 10,000 at the rally outside Manama, where anti-government protests last year were crushed by Bahraini forces and troops from neighboring Saudi Arabia.
Pearl Roundabout, a large traffic junction in Manama where the protesters camped out and rallied for a month, has since been closed off by security forces who monitor the area closely.
Bahrain, a key U.S. and Saudi ally in their stand-off with Iran across the Gulf, has been in turmoil since the uprising broke out last year, inspired by revolts in Tunisia and Egypt.
The opposition are trying to sustain pressure on the government, dominated by the Sunni Muslim Al Khalifa family, ahead of the February 14 anniversary of the uprising. The reforms they want include an elected government - the first in the Gulf - and reduced powers for the Al Khalifa family.
Sheikh Ali Salman, leader of the largest opposition party Wefaq, called on activists to keep the protests peaceful but warned that intelligence agencies and pro-government militias would act as agent provocateurs in coming weeks.
He called on activists to use only Bahraini flags over the coming week and to avoid using party or sectarian symbols.
Opposition groups draw wide support from Bahrain’s majority Shi‘ite population, which accuses the ruling elite of political and economic marginalization. The government says Shi‘ites have a sectarian agenda coordinated with Iran - which they deny.
Salman said the protest movement would continue after February 14 and the country would not return to normal until the ruling elite ended its monopoly on power and the 14 prominent figures convicted for leading the protests, who are on hunger strike this week, were released.
“This people will not calm down and there will be no calm or stability while they are behind bars,” he said.
“These symbolic figures did not call for violence or use violence. They expressed views that you can agree with or not, but that’s part of freedom of expression. The verdicts were based on confessions under torture. The verdicts are void.”
Opposition parties have tried to set themselves apart from youth activists who clash regularly with police by arranging marches and rallies in advance with the authorities. Many youths, angered by what they say is continued harsh policing, say this approach is not bringing results.
Activists say the ongoing violence has taken the total dead over the past year to more than 60, some from teargas inhalation or from being hit by cars in pursuit of youths. The government disputes the causes of death.
At one point a helicopter monitoring the rally flew over at high speed and low altitude, a possible warning to wrap it up early.
Clashes took place on Saturday in nearby impoverished Shi‘ite villages.
The interior ministry said earlier in a statement that a police car had been destroyed by a petrol bomb on a main highway.
Writing by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Tim Pearce