Bahraini clerics accuse police of violating religious freedoms

Reuters News
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Posted: Jun 07, 2011 12:59 PM
Bahraini clerics accuse police of violating religious freedoms

By Erika Solomon

MANAMA (Reuters) - Bahraini Shi'ite clerics accused police on Tuesday of violating religious freedoms by breaking up street festivals by majority Shi'ites that police said activists had turned into political protests against the government.

The U.N. labor rights agency also urged Bahrain on Tuesday to give jobs back to at least 2,000 workers fired for striking in support of pro-democracy protests in February and March that were put down harshly during over two months of martial law.

"Our main worry is people being able to work and ensuring they can exercise their freedom of association and not be pressured as a result of events," International Labour Organization (ILO) director-general Juan Somavia told a news briefing in Geneva.

In March, Bahrain called in troops from fellow Sunni-led Gulf Arab countries to quash the democracy protests, accusing the protesters of having a sectarian agenda and help from Shi'ite power Iran. The opposition deny this.

Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, says the Saudi and Emirati forces will remain in the country indefinitely to help face a perceived threat from Iran, across a short stretch of water from Bahrain.

Police clashed with Shi'ite marchers on Sunday, less than a week after Bahrain, ruled by its Sunni Muslim minority, repealed an emergency law that quashed weeks of protests.

The government said on Tuesday an unspecified number of arrests had been made.

"The targeting of processions is a flagrant violation of freedom to practice religious rites," said a statement from five senior Shi'ite clerics, including Sheikh Issa Qassim.

"The tight security policing must end and people's rights must be respected," it said.

Shi'ite villagers, some beating their chests and chanting religious verses as they marched through the streets, were marking the festival of Azza, which commemorates the death of one of the 12 Imams, or early Shi'ite religious leaders.

Residents and Shi'ite opposition group Wefaq said police used tear gas, rubber bullets, sound grenades and birdshot to break up the marches in several Shi'ite areas around Manama.

A police statement on Tuesday said some people had been arrested for anti-government chants.

"Some small groups broke the law on Sunday by exploiting the commemoration of the death of the Imam Hadi to stage marches and repeat political slogans that violate (the law)," the official news agency quoted spokesman Tareq bin Dayna as saying.

Marchers in some of the parades shouted "Down, down with (King) Hamad" and "The people want the fall of the regime."

Bahrain was thrilled to get the Formula One Grand Prix reinstated in this season's calendar by the sport's governing body, after weeks of negative publicity around the world during a harsh crackdown under martial law.

But with military trials underway and clashes between police and protesters in Shi'ite villages, Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone called on Tuesday for a fresh vote on the decision to hold the Bahrain Grand Prix in October.

"Better that we move Bahrain to the end of the season and, if things are safe and well, then that is fine, we can go," he told the Times of London newspaper. The government-owned Bahrain International Circuit that runs the event issued a response saying Bahrain would be ready to host the event.

MILITARY TRIALS

Forty-eight doctors and nurses are on military trial on charges ranging from incitement against the government to storing weapons and seizing control of a major hospital during the unrest, part of a series of protests that have swept North African and Gulf states this year.

Twenty-one rights activists and opposition political leaders are also on military trial for attempting to overthrow the system of government.

Rights activists say the charges are concocted to discredit demands for democracy that threatened the Al Khalifa family's grip on power and that most of the men and women on trial have been physically and verbally abused in detention.

The government has said it will investigate any claims of abuse for which there is concrete evidence.

Some lawyers told Reuters after a hearing on Monday that they had not been granted access to the defendants and argued those in custody should be released until their trial. A government official said the lawyers would be allowed to see their clients before next week's session.

The trial of the medical workers has angered many among the Shi'ite population, as tensions simmer in the tiny island kingdom after emergency law was lifted on June 1.

Defendants said they believed their cases would depend on the outcome of a national dialogue expected in July that was offered by the king last week and accepted by Wefaq and other political groups.

(Additional reporting by Alan Baldwin and Andrew Hammond; writing by Andrew Hammond)