Hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets of Bahrain's capital, Manama, on Saturday to mark the fourth anniversary of the uprising against the country's Sunni monarchy.
Protesters clashed with a heavily armed police force that shot tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds. The demonstrators were calling for political reforms by the ruling Sunni family, which has been engaged in a violent crackdown on activists since the uprising began in 2011. The monarchy is largely seen as repressive and discriminatory toward the Shia majority in Bahrain.
Demonstrators also demanded the release of Sheikh Ali Salman, the main opposition leader, who was arrested in December 2014.
Saturday was the third day of protests that took place across the country, in addition to a general strike to mark the 2011 uprising. Men and women flooded the streets of the capital chanting "down Hamad" in reference to the King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. A candlelight vigil was also held to commemorate those who were killed by the government during the uprising.
The protests and nationwide strikes have largely been organized by the February 14th Coalition, an anonymous online youth opposition group that was established shortly after the initial uprising began in 2011.
Protesters also carried large, stuffed teddy bears — a mascot of the demonstrations — during clashes with police.
Al-Wefaq, the country's main opposition party, urged protesters to stick to nonviolence and "refrain from putting lives and private and public properties under threat."
"The calls for violent acts do not relate to the Bahraini people's peaceful movement for democracy," Al-Wefaq said in a statement released in English today. The message also condemned "the excessive use of force by security forces and which has resulted in serious casualties among the peaceful citizens."
Protests have been mounting in recent weeks leading up to the February 14th anniversary.
Videos showed Bahraini security forces using force to clamp down on demonstrators, including one in which a policeman aims at and shoots a young protester in the face.
Other videos show security forces shooting plumes of tear gas at protesters, who respond by throwing rocks and burning tires.
Amnesty International released a statement today urging Bahrain's government to "uphold the rights to freedom of peaceful expression and assembly and rein in security forces."
Despite calls for restraint from human rights groups, Bahrain's public security chief, Major-General Tariq al-Hassan, issued a stern warning in advance of the protests, saying that, "Action will be taken against those who spread terror among citizens or residents, put the safety of others at risk or try to disrupt the nation's security and stability."
Although small demonstrations have been taking place occasionally in Bahrain since 2011, the conflict between the minority Shia population and the ruling Sunni monarchy has largely remained unresolved. The Saudi Arabia-backed government quickly crushed the uprising soon after it began during the wave of protests that took place across the Arab world in 2011.
Al-Wefaq, along with other opposition activists, have demanded democratic reforms in the country, including an elected prime minister independent from the ruling family, greater power shared with the Shia majority, and an end to the repressive crackdowns on speech and activism.
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