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Bahrain Blames Foreign Interference for Resurgent Sectarian Violence

Background

There has been an intensification of violence in Bahrain in the past week, culminating in the death of a 16 year-old Shia boy. The conviction of 20 medics accused of aiding anti-government forces, has caused outrage in the Persian Gulf country. Word has spread of protester plans to return to Pearl Roundabout, where the initial uprising in February was centred.

Comment

The cause of tension is largely sectarian in nature. Despite the country’s ethnic Shia majority, it is ruled by a Sunni royal family and a largely unrepresentative parliament that ensures Sunni control of government. On the other hand, the Bahraini government, along with some figures in the United States, have accused Iran of covertly supporting the uprising to extend its influence.

Bahrain’s administration has used suspicion of Iranian interference to justify its harsh crackdown on protesters, which has resulted in scores of injuries and deaths. Government figures point to the Iranian media, which has broadcast avid support of the uprising, as some kind of proof that Tehran is attempting to make a fourteenth province out of Bahrain. This suspicion has resonated with some people in the United States, including journalists, which sparked government plans to sell US$53 million worth of weaponry to the Bahraini government. Concerns over human rights and government suppression, however, have prevailed, and both houses of US Congress have introduced resolutions to block the sale.

"The US should not reward a regime that actively suppresses its people. This resolution will withhold the sale of arms to Bahrain until the ruling family shows a real commitment to human rights,” announced Oregon Senator Ron Wyden.

The official abolition of martial law in June has done little to prevent anti-government protesters from taking to the streets, and the past week has seen the worst violence in several months. Last week, 20 medics were given sentences varying from five to 20 years in jail for providing aid to protesters, which caused a major backlash and forced the government to agree to a retrial. However, tensions flared again on Friday, when 16 year-old Jaber al-Qattan was hit at close range by police fire and later died from his wounds. The next day, Bahraini police attempted to close off streets to prevent swaths of people attending his funeral, for fear of major unrest.

There has been talk amongst protesters of haq al-awda, meaning “right of return”. This alludes to a return to the site of the now-demolished Pearl Roundabout, the site of the original protests that started in February. The Bahraini government has possibly taken too long to satisfy the reform demands of the Shia majority, and this week could see a return to the level of unrest that occurred in the early days of the Arab Spring, with further destabilising consequences.

Chris Doyle

Research Intern

FDI Indian Ocean Research Programme

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