MANAMA: Anti-government protesters converged on the headquarters of Bahrain’s main opposition party Saturday, defying a government ban on the gathering and pressing ahead with their campaign for greater political and civil rights for the nation’s Shia Muslims.
The protest in front of Al Wefaq’s offices in the capital of Manama was a show of defiance by the party that has been the main backer of the Shia majority’s 10-month-old protest movement, which is aimed at breaking the Sunni dynasty’s monopoly on power in the strategically important Arab kingdom in the Persian Gulf.
The government rejected the party’s permit request for the demonstration, but thousands of protesters came anyway. They waved Bahraini flags and chanted anti-government slogans despite a massive security presence across the capital.
Opposition supporters poured into Manama from the predominantly Shia villages that ring the capital. The villages have been the site of almost daily clashes between demonstrators and security forces since the government intensified a punishing crackdown on dissent in March.
Shias represent about 70 percent of Bahrain’s population but are denied top political and security jobs.
In the past decade, Al Wefaq has led a campaign for greater rights for the Shia majority, but with inspiration from the Arab Spring uprisings, Shia protesters took to the streets in February in numbers never seen before in the island nation.
A month later, the party’s 18 lawmakers resigned from parliament to protest the crackdown.
The party also walked out of government-designed reconciliation talks in July, claiming authorities had no intention of compromising with the opposition. The party also boycotted September elections for the vacated seats because of the detention of several of its officials.
Al Wefaq has been staging weekly public gatherings in the past months, but it has usually refrained from doing so without a permit from authorities.
In return, Al Wefaq’s applications are usually granted, but the request for Saturday’s gathering was rejected.
Bahrain’s Interior Ministry said Al Wefaq’s request to stage a gathering on one of Manama’s vital roads was not approved for security reasons.
"If the event were to be held on such a vital road … it could hinder traffic, disturb security and affect the interests of the public," the ministry said in a statement that was posted on its website late Friday.
Riot police encircled the party’s headquarters and prevented protesters from marching to the highway, just east of the building. But the protest ended peacefully.
At least 40 people have died since the unrest began in February.
US State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said in a statement Saturday that embassy officials in Manama met with human rights activist Nabeel Rajab, who was injured during a demonstration on Friday, and Bahraini government officials.
"We strongly urge the Government of Bahrain to undertake a full investigation to determine if excessive force was employed by police," the statement said.
Bahrain is a critical US ally and is home to the US Navy’s 5th Fleet.
Washington has taken a cautious line with authorities, urging Bahrain’s leaders to open more dialogue with the opposition, but avoiding too much public pressure.