Bahrain to crack down on political freedom as violence increases
Bahrain's king urged lawmakers Sunday to move ahead with proposed harsher measures against escalating attacks by Shia-led opposition factions, including banning protest gatherings in the capital.
It came after top government officials joined an emergency parliament session to discuss the Gulf nation's nearly 30 months of unrest.
It was unclear what new steps could emerge more than two years after Bahrain lifted temporary martial law-style rule. But the endorsement for speedy action by the king virtually clears the way for tougher codes that also could include freezing bank accounts and stripping citizenship over links to violence.
The gathering also underscored the growing alarm in Bahrain that the Arab Spring-inspired uprising by the kingdom's majority Shias could be drifting into an even more violent stage. A spate of recent bomb attacks, including a blast Saturday, has wounded several policemen and suggests that militant groups are operating with greater autonomy.
Bahrain's main Shia political blocs have denounced the attacks, but also complain about widespread injuries among protesters from security forces using bird-shot fire and tear gas.
More than 60 people have died in Bahrain's upheaval as Shias press for a greater political voice in the strategic Sunni-ruled kingdom, which is home to the US Navy's 5th Fleet. Activists and Shia leaders place the death toll above 100.
The parliament session also appeared prompted by opposition calls for major protests August 14 inspired by the crowds that helped topple Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi. Authorities have already warned of a tough response to attempts at organizing large-scale marches that day.
Abdul Jalil Khalil, a top official with the main Shiite political group Al Wefaq, criticized Sunday's emergency session and royal endorsement of tougher measures, saying "what came today is a green light to tighten laws that are incompatible with freedom of expression and human rights."
On the other side of the political divide, Justice Minister Khalid bin Ali Al Khalifa told lawmakers that authorities must first quell "terrorism" before it can discuss reconciliation, but he stopped short of outlining any specific measures.
Samira Rajab, the information minister and government spokesman, said Bahrain should adopt a "zero-tolerance policy" against "violent acts that have affected the social fabric of its society."
Parliament members, however, pressed government officials to impose tougher punishments and steps to control violence, including banning all protest gatherings in the capital, Manama, whose Pearl Square was the center of the uprising in its early days. Shortly after clearing the square of demonstrators in early 2011, wrecking crews brought down the six-pronged monument that towered above the area and was one of the city's main landmarks. It is now ringed by razor wire and guarded round the clock.
"The dangerous escalation, which tries to pull the country into a whirlpool of insecurity and political tensions, should be faced," said the parliament's chairman, Khalifa bin Ahmed al-Dhahrani.
Nearly all the 80 members in both chambers of parliament back the Sunni monarchy. Shiite lawmakers walked out amid the crackdowns against protesters in early 2011.
One lawmaker, Latifa al-Qaood, urged authorities to wield "an iron fist against all traitors," according to the official Bahrain News Agency.
Another, Sawsan Taqawi, called for banning any gatherings or rallies "that endanger national security" and take more decisions to strip citizenship from people convicted of "terrorism." In November, Bahrain revoked citizenship for 31 Shiites for roles in the uprising — a move that brought widespread denunciations from international human rights groups.
Bahrain courts also have jailed prominent opposition figures and others, including some with alleged links to Iranian-backed groups such as Lebanon's Hezbollah. Bahrain and other Gulf states claim Shiite power Iran has a hand in the protests, but there has been no clear evidence presented. Iran denies any direct role in Bahrain's unrest.
Other lawmakers proposed freezing assets for suspects linked to attacks and ordering blanket curfews in areas of frequent clashes.