By Andrew Hammond
DUBAI (Reuters) - Bahrain has said it is banning opposition rallies in order to prevent disruption to traffic and street violence that are sabotaging efforts to end unrest in the Gulf Arab state.
But the opposition described the move as a new attempt to silence them.
The island state ruled by the Sunni Al Khalifa family has seen unrest since an uprising for political reforms, led by majority Shi'ites, was launched in February 2011 after revolts in Egypt and Tunisia.
The uprising was initially crushed during a period of martial law but unrest has continued with regular organized protests by opposition parties and clashes between riot police and youths who say the monarchy marginalizes them.
A senior official said the government had no new plans to ban rallies outright, but wanted to make sure they did not turn violent.
The Interior Ministry said this week it had banned a series of rallies on Thursday and Friday organized by the leading opposition party Wefaq, the latest in a series of publicly announced bans over the past month,.
It cited public interest and traffic concerns.
"Holding these marches will damage people's interests and hold up traffic," state news agency BNA said latge on Thursday, citing public security chief Tariq al-Hassan.
"The marches cannot be considered as responsible freedom of expression," it said, adding that march organizers had not been able to control them in the past.
Senior Wefaq member Abduljalil Khalil decried what he said was a new policy to end the use of the street to demand reforms.
"This will lead to more escalation since people now feel no hope. There is no chance to practice their freedom, they have cornered everybody now," he said.
Amnesty International criticized the bans on Thursday, saying the government was violating fundamental rights. A government statement said the interior ministry was working on identifying "approved locations" for rallies.
Since April the authorities have stepped up efforts to crack down on unrest. Activists cite an increased use of shotgun pellets, whose use authorities have declined to confirm or deny.
Shi'ite protesters operating under the banner of an underground group called the February 14 Youth Coalition throw petrol bombs at police in clashes in Shi'ite neighborhoods. Police say many of their men have been burned by these bombs and wounded by homemade explosive devices.
Penal code changes published on Thursday specified sentences of seven and 10 years in jail for causing permanent injury to security personnel or life imprisonment for accidental death.
Opposition activists say youths are retaliating for heavy use of teargas to break up demonstrations against a government dominated by the Khalifa family.
They say over 45 people have died because of police tactics since martial law ended over a year ago. The government questions the causes of death.
"There is no plan to stop licensing them (protest marches), but all they are being asked to do is abide by the law," Minister of State for Information Affairs Samira Rajab told Reuters last week.
"Wefaq takes a license, then from inside the march people appear and throw molotovs at cars. The opposition want to cancel the law in Bahrain, they want to have absolute rights."
The king has given parliament more powers of scrutiny over ministers and budgets. But the opposition want full legislative powers to the elected parliament and full power to form or approve governments, including the position of prime minister.
The government held meetings with Wefaq earlier this year on a possible dialogue to resolve a crisis that has slowed the economy of a once thriving banking and tourism center.
Wefaq says the ruling family rejected proposals concerning the elected parliament's authority over the prime minister's post and reduced power for the appointed upper house.
Government figures said Wefaq had set preconditions, while Sunni groups close to the government objected to talks with a movement it blames for protester clashes with police.
Last month the United States, a backer of the ruling family, said there was urgent need for dialogue, warning of increased polarization. Washington's Fifth Fleet is based in Manama.
At a recent political salon, activists said there was now a chance to come together with Sunni-dominated groups such as the National Unity Gathering, which last month made its own demands for political and judicial reform and efforts to fight corruption.
"The situation is different now. Today there is a wide Sunni bloc and it represents a power on the street," said veteran activist Ali Rabia. "We could get a dialogue through an agreement with the Gathering."
The minister, Rajab, said Bahrain rejected intervention from outside, but dialogue would come in time.
"There is no solution other than dialogue ... but they have to declare that they renounce violence on the streets," she said. "It needs a bit of time to set the mood gradually. There should be intermediaries gradually to help get to the negotiating table, but the violence has to stop."
(Writing by Andrew Hammond, editing by Samia Nakhoul)