MANAMA (Reuters) - The funeral march for Mohammed Yaacoub had barely ended last week when police and protesters faced off in the town of Sitra, an impoverished district of Bahrain that has borne the brunt of a year of unrest.
Teenagers using scarves to mask their faces went on a rampage wielding iron bars and petrol bombs, and riot police in their prim blue uniforms and white helmets fired off teargas rounds and stormed down alleyways in their trademark jeeps.
“People have no alternative -- all we have is tires to burn and Molotovs to throw,” one activist said. “As long as the government is not ready to respond, anything is possible.”
The Bahrain government’s security tactics and offer of concessions appear to have failed in calming the streets; if anything the conflict with opposition activists pushing for democratic reforms has become more violent in recent weeks.
Thousands of pro-democracy protesters took to Bahrain’s streets last February and March, occupying a central roundabout in Manama, following revolts in Egypt and Tunisia.
As talks on political reforms stalled and some demands shifted to ditching the ruling Al Khalifa family, hardliners in the government brought in Saudi troops and imposed martial law in a bid to quash a movement that was feared to be large enough to pose a real threat to the existing order.
By the time martial law was lifted in June, 35 people had died, including four in police custody and several security personnel.
But the tensions have not gone away. Police continue to clash with disaffected youth in underdeveloped neighborhoods populated by the island state’s majority Shi‘ite Muslim population, who complain of political and economic marginalization by the ruling elite of Al Khalifa and allied families.
Activists say at least 25 people have died since June, in some cases after exposure to teargas or in incidents as police in cars storm down alleyways in pursuit of teenagers.
At least ten of these deaths occurred in the last two months, after a commission of international legal scholars charged with investigating claims of widespread rights abuses during the period of martial law at the end of November delivered a damning report revealing torture of detainees and flawed military trials.
Now both government and opposition are preparing for a tense month as the February 14 anniversary of the first pro-democracy protests approaches.
The stakes could not be higher. Sunni-ruled states in the Gulf fear reforms making Bahrain the first real Gulf democracy would raise the bar in their own countries. Saudi Arabia’s Shi‘ite minority is already involved in similar clashes with security forces.
They also fear that a Bahrain with empowered Shi‘ites would naturally develop closer ties with Iran. The United States, whose Fifth Fleet is based in Manama, shares concerns about Iranian influence and see Bahrain as a key ally in their stand-off with Tehran over its nuclear energy program.
The government says it is dealing with hooligans whose violent behavior would not be tolerated in any country.
It says the protesters’ own political leaders have failed them by rejecting offers of dialogue over the year and making unrealistic demands such as that the government stand down over the rights report.
“We definitely see an escalation from the radical elements of the protesters. We see their use of homemade weapons that have hurt our policemen in a bad way,” said Sheikh Abdul-Aziz bin Mubarak al-Khalifa, a senior adviser at the Information Affairs Authority and former ambassador to London.
“The door is still open... but don’t give me preconditions and don’t give me that the government has to resign.”
The interior ministry says it wants legislation meting out 15-year sentences to those who attack police -- a police car was destroyed in a petrol bomb attack last week, though no policeman has died in the clashes since March.
Columnists in pro-government papers go further, accusing opposition leaders and Shi‘ite clerics of coordinating with Shi‘ite state Iran to inflame the streets -- familiar charges that make the opposition roll their eyes.
“We’ve been hearing this rhetoric for many years. Whenever there’s a movement with political demands they play this song,” said Farida Ismail, a senior member of the Waad party.
Media have also pointed to the rhetoric of the most influential cleric in Bahrain, Sheikh Issa Qassim, who recently called on worshippers to “crush” those who aggress against women -- a response to reports of mistreatment of women protesters.
Qassim’s phrase -- “Ishaquh!” (Crush them) -- has appeared as graffiti in Shi‘ite districts all over the country.
Pro-government groups, including many Sunnis, fear that Shi‘ite clerics and Islamist politicians will dominate the country, as in Iraq, if the government makes any compromises.
Broadly speaking, protest organizers fall into three groups: the opposition parties led by Shi‘ite Islamist party Wefaq who try to coordinate their activities with the government, street activists calling themselves the ‘February 14 Youth Coalition’ and individuals such as leading rights activist Nabeel Rajab whose marches usually end in teargas.
February 14 is a shadowy group that issues statements in the name of disaffected youth. The authorities have not identified any leaders, but as one activist at a Rajab protest in Manama’s old city said with a smirk last week: “We’re all February 14.”
Their rhetoric has become more radical.
February 14 Youth issued a “charter” this week saying the government had gone too far in its crackdown. “The aim of this revolution has become to bring down the regime and decide our own fate after it became clear that trying to live with it and reform it has become impossible,” it said.
One Western diplomat suggested protesters bore more responsibility for the recent escalation and pinned hopes on King Hamad and the Crown Prince’s promises of reform, though analysts say hardliners in government have the upper hand.
“February 14 are using increasingly lethal tactics with police, they are spoiling for a fight,” the diplomat said, estimating that police tactics had improved since the publication of the Bahrain Independent Commission on Inquiry (BICI) report.
One of the government’s responses was to hire John Timoney, a former Miami police chief with a record of handling urban protest, to help reform law enforcement procedures.
The diplomat felt that was leading to an improvement, though Timoney’s hiring was met with derision by many: “The fact that they brought in someone with his experience speaks to a level of seriousness... Police have been told to use a hands-off approach. In their view, tear gas is the least bad option. That said, it’s indiscriminate.”
Researchers and activists on the ground say these views do not reflect the reality on the ground.
Mohammed al-Maskati, head of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, says his team of 20 researchers have documented 60 deaths since February 14 and that the hardline approach used by police has stiffened in the past two months.
He said that rather than take youths to police stations, a pattern has developed of beating them on the spot or holding them for short periods in informal detention centers where they are beaten up before release. He cited three such buildings.
“We had more than 100 testimonies concerning people taken to those three places since the end of November,” he said.
What feeds protesters’ anger further is their conviction that Pakistanis and Arab nationals have been hired by the police to man the front lines under Bahraini officers.
At least three people have died in suspicious circumstances over the past month in apparent police custody.
One case was that of Mohammed Yaacoub, a 19-year-old from Sitra who died in police custody last month from what they said were complications resulting from sickle cell disease.
One resident, who gave her name as Umm Fadhel, told Reuters she witnessed riot police stamping on him and beating him with batons. Activists say his body showed bruising, abrasions and a cut, but there were no obvious signs of abuse.
The lawyer of one teenager from Sitra said he was molested outside the police station. “He told the prosecutor that riot police tried to sexually abuse him but the Bahraini officer in charge stopped him,” said Fatima al-Khudair. The youth remains in detention on charges of taking part in an illegal gathering.
The brother of a teenager from Dimistan said he was struck by a police car at high speed after clashes last week, but they took him to a private clinic for fear of arrest or mistreatment in a government-run hospital.
The government says it has begun prosecution so far of 48 officers over death and injuries through torture and mistreatment and that the public should be patient.
Sheikh Abdul-Aziz defended policing and said Yaacoub’s case was under investigation.
“There is an investigation... We are confident that the ministry of interior has engaged with the best people,” he said. “There are many untruths of what is happening but if there are any ethical or unethical conduct by police force by all means we ask them to bring it forward.”
Editing by Sonya Hepinstall