MANAMA (Reuters) - Bahrainis, emboldened by a rights enquiry that found evidence of systematic abuse during the crushing of pro-democracy protests this year, clashed with police on Thursday after the funeral of a Shi‘ite man who died a day earlier.
Some 10,000 people from the majority Shi‘ite community in the Gulf Arab state took to the streets of the town of Aali, chanting slogans that were taken from the inquiry led by international rights lawyer Cherif Bassiouni.
Bassiouni surprised Bahrainis and most observers with a hard-hitting report whose main points were read out in front of King Hamad and senior figures from the ruling Al Khalifa family on Wednesday.
“Bassiouni says you are torturers, Bassiouni says you are killers,” the man leading the funeral procession shouted through a loudspeaker, addressing the security forces. “The test for Bassiouni’s report is if people can protest freely.”
He also taunted the government over the report’s finding that there was no evidence of Iranian involvement in the protests which swept Bahrain in February, threatening the Al Khalifa family’s tight grip on power.
The mourners, who were burying the body of a man who died after a police vehicle smashed into his car, chanted backed “The people want to topple the regime,” the signature chant of Arab uprisings that began in Tunisia, and “Down with Hamad.”
As the procession approached the main streets, teenagers with face masks ran ahead renewing the slogans sprayed on closed shop fronts, such as “I sacrifice myself to you with my blood, my country” and “Endurance, will and determination.”
After the funeral, youths moved rubbish bins into the middle of roads in anticipation of police 4x4 cars chasing them. Riot police fired teargas and youths threw stones in clashes that lasted some two hours.
An interior ministry statement said police reacted to youths throwing stones and firebombs at them in an illegal protest.
“The good thing in the report is it says everyone has the right to protest and that there’s no Iranian interference. That’s what people are happy about,” said Nezar al-Sabbah, who runs a small business. “But it doesn’t blame anybody.”
“Bassiouni didn’t tell us anything we didn’t know,” said Saleh Ibrahim. “What we need now is intent to follow through on it. That’s where credibility will come from.”
Bassiouni’s inquiry said nearly 3,000 people were arrested and 4,000 lost their jobs after the government invited in Saudi and UAE troops and introduced martial law to end the protests.
With its talk of confessions extracted under torture, the report has left question marks over the verdicts handed down by military courts, including against 21 politicians, rights activists and a blogger accused of leading the uprising, and ongoing cases which have been transferred to civilian courts.
It stopped short of directing blame at specific officials or suggesting government bodies implemented specific policies of abuse during the crackdown, which focused on those who had taken part in the protests but extended to Shi‘ites generally.
The authorities are determined to stop protesters occupying the Pearl Roundabout again, the iconic heart of the protest movement which remains under heavy police guard.
A small banking center, U.S.-allied Bahrain has become a focus point for the regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The government accused the protesters of being driven by a sectarian agenda and backed by Shi‘ite power Iran.
Bahrain’s response to the inquiry could determine whether the U.S. Congress approves an arms deal the government is seeking. King Hamad said on Wednesday he would set up a body to implement its recommendations.
But the country, whose economy has suffered during the unrest, remains in political limbo.
The government has said it will increase parliament’s powers of scrutiny over the government, led for 42 years by Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman.
Opposition groups want reforms that would give the elected assembly power to legislate and form governments.
Writing by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Jon Hemming