Protests broke out in Bahrain after the execution of two Shia Muslim activists on terrorism-related charges revived tension over the weekend in the Sunni-led kingdom, a Western ally that has cracked down on dissent since a failed 2011 uprising, reports Reuters.
Police fired tear gas to disperse hundreds of demonstrators in Bilad al-Qadeem suburb where one protester died from gas inhalation on Saturday, four activists said. A government spokesperson said in a statement sent to Reuters that the man died from natural causes.
People also took to the streets in several Shia villages and neighbourhoods on the outskirts of the capital Manama on Sunday night in response to Saturday’s execution of Ali al-Arab and Ahmed al-Malali, who were sentenced to death last year on terrorism crimes in a mass trial.
Videos and pictures posted on verified social media accounts of activists showed demonstrators clashing with security forces, burning ties and building roadblocks.
The protests are the most significant unrest in more than two years in the island state, headquarters of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet since authorities in 2017 executed three Shia men convicted of killing three policemen in a bomb attack.
Bahrain has a Shia Muslim majority and is ruled by a Sunni royal family. It is the only one of the Gulf monarchies to have faced serious unrest during the Arab Spring protests that swept the Middle East and North Africa in 2011.
Asked about the demonstrations, the government spokesperson told Reuters that Bahrain upholds constitutional rights for freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, but “any acts of disorder that disrupt public safety require legal actions to be taken” in accordance with internationally recognised standards.
The ruling Al Khalifa family has kept a lid on dissent since the mostly Shia opposition staged a failed uprising in 2011. Saudi Arabia sent in troops to help crush that unrest in a mark of concern that any major unrest or power-sharing concession by Bahrain could inspire its own Shia minority.
Activists abroad have called for further protests over the executions, which were criticised by international rights groups who say the men’s confessions were obtained through torture, which Manama denies.
“There are calls and there will be more protests in the coming days, but the repression is very violent and authorities are retaliating with collective punishments,” said Ali Alaswad, a senior member of the dissolved opposition group al-Wefaq, who has lived in exile in London since 2011.
Bahrain has closed the main opposition groups and prosecuted scores of people, stripping hundreds of their nationalities, in mass trials. A number of activists have fled abroad.
Many Shia Muslims say they are deprived of jobs and treated as second class citizens in the country of 1.5 million. Authorities deny this and accuse Iran of fostering unrest that has seen demonstrators clash with security forces, who have been targeted by several bomb attacks. Tehran denies involvement.