DUBAI (Reuters) - Protests broke out in Bahrain after the execution of two Shi’ite Muslim activists on terrorism-related charges revived tension over the weekend in the Sunni-led kingdom, a Western ally that has cracked down on dissent since a failed 2011 uprising.
Police fired tear gas to disperse hundreds of demonstrators in Bilad al-Qadeem suburb where one protester died from gas inhalation on Saturday, four activists said. A government spokesperson said in a statement sent to Reuters that the man died from natural causes.
People also took to the streets in several Shi’ite villages and neighborhoods on the outskirts of the capital Manama on Sunday night in response to Saturday’s execution of Ali al-Arab and Ahmed al-Malali, who were sentenced to death last year on terrorism crimes in a mass trial.
Videos and pictures posted on verified social media accounts of activists showed demonstrators clashing with security forces, burning ties and building roadblocks.
The protests are the most significant unrest in more than two years in the island state, headquarters of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, since authorities in 2017 executed three Shi’ite men convicted of killing three policemen in a bomb attack.
Bahrain has a Shi’ite Muslim majority and is ruled by a Sunni royal family. It is the only one of the Gulf monarchies to have faced serious unrest during the Arab Spring protests that swept the Middle East and North Africa in 2011.
Asked about the demonstrations, the government spokesperson told Reuters that Bahrain upholds constitutional rights for freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, but “any acts of disorder that disrupt public safety require legal actions to be taken” in accordance with internationally recognized standards.
The ruling Al Khalifa family has kept a lid on dissent since the mostly Shi’ite opposition staged a failed uprising in 2011. Saudi Arabia sent in troops to help crush that unrest in a mark of concern that any major unrest or power-sharing concession by Bahrain could inspire its own Shi’ite minority.
Activists abroad have called for further protests over the executions, which were criticized by international rights groups who say the men’s confessions were obtained through torture, which Manama denies.
“There are calls and there will be more protests in the coming days, but the repression is very violent and authorities are retaliating with collective punishments,” said Ali Alaswad, a senior member of the dissolved opposition group al-Wefaq, who has lived in exile in London since 2011.
Bahrain has closed the main opposition groups and prosecuted scores of people, stripping hundreds of their nationalities, in mass trials. A number of activists have fled abroad.
Many Shi’ites say they are deprived of jobs and treated as second class citizens in the country of 1.5 million. Authorities deny this and accuse Iran of fostering unrest that has seen demonstrators clash with security forces, who have been targeted by several bomb attacks. Tehran denies involvement.
Analysts say they do not expect a repeat of past widespread violence given measures to stifle dissent in Bahrain, which has been emboldened by a crackdown on dissent in Saudi Arabia.
“Bahrainis know an escalation, as happened in 2011, will not only be met with brutality, but also with the occupation by Saudi Forces in the form of the Gulf Peninsula Shield,” said Marc Owen Jones of the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter, referring to a common Gulf Arab force.
On Sunday, hundreds of people attended the funeral of Mohammad Ibrahim al-Mokdad, 22, who died after taking part in Saturday night’s protest. The government spokesperson said a medical report “confirms illness as cause of death”.
“With our souls, with our blood, we will redeem you, martyr,” mourners could be heard chanting in several videos of the funeral posted on activists’ social media accounts.
Many were holding pictures of the executed activists, who were among three men executed on Saturday. Authorities said, without identifying any of the men, that they were convicted in two separate cases, one involving the killing of a police officer and the other the killing of a mosque imam.
London-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy says that 17 people are currently on death row on political grounds, including eight at imminent risk of execution.
“The regime uses executions as a vengeance tool,” said al-Wefaq’s Alaswad.
The authorities have denied targeting the opposition and say they are protecting national security.
Reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi; Editing by William Maclean and Peter Graff