Bahraini forces on Tuesday used barbed wire to cage in entire villages one day ahead of a banned anti-government rally scheduled to take place outside the US embassy, activists said.
“The police have been surrounding different villages with barbed wire since the morning to prevent people from protesting,” Yousif al-Muhafda, deputy-head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), told Al-Akhbar.
Among the villages being fenced off are Bilad al-Qadeem, which is near the US embassy, and the major town of Sitra. Residents in those towns and several other villages will be forced to cross police checkpoints to enter and leave, and thus may face arrest if suspected of protesting.
The protest is being organized by Bahrain’s Tamarod Movement, inspired by the Egyptian group whose massive demonstration led to the overthrow of President Mohammed Mursi last month in Cairo.
Muhafda said the government did not publicly announce plans to encircle the villages.
“The government cannot justify doing this, so they will remain silent about it,” he said.
Bahrain’s prime minister had previously threatened to “punish” protesters who take to the streets Wednesday. The August 14 protest was scheduled to coincide with the country’s independence day.
“The government will forcefully confront the suspicious calls to violate law … and will punish (those) who stand behind them in line,” Bahrain’s state news agency quoted Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa as saying.
Bahrain’s Tamarod organization urged the US government to support its peaceful, pro-democracy movement, and to pressure Bahrain to refrain from attacking the upcoming demonstration in a statement published earlier this month.
The United States – a major backer of Bahrain’s longstanding monarchy – has previously said it was concerned over rights abuses in the country, but has held back from issuing calls for a transition to democracy.
The small island kingdom is home to the US Fifth Fleet and is strategically located near Iran, so the United States has a vested interest in preserving the brutal al-Khalifa regime.
More than 80 people have been killed since massive anti-government protests erupted in February 2011. A Saudi-led Gulf force entered the country one month later to violently crush the uprising, but almost daily protests still occur in villages around the country.
Police have arrested hundreds of people since then, routinely carrying out Israeli-style overnight raids and arbitrarily arresting youths and activists. Those arrested are regularly tortured to force confessions.
Medics have also been targeted, and some sentenced to several years in prison for treating injured protesters.
BCHR’s Muhafda said his group will offer a prize – probably a video camera – to whoever produces the most powerful photograph or footage of police violations.
The rights organization last awarded a camera to a citizen journalist who captured police hurling Molotov cocktails at protesters.
It is BCHR’s way to counter the government’s crackdown on journalists and encourage citizens to document violations, Muhafda said.
“Right now five citizen journalists are behind bars, and other journalists have been threatened by security forces to stop their work. Some journalists this past week were banned from entering my country, so that’s why I want to encourage people to document violations,” he said. “If they do this, it means the government crackdown on journalists has failed.”
On Tuesday, Reporters Without Borders voiced concerns over what it described as a “new upsurge in abusive treatment of journalists” in the run-up to the rally.
The Paris-based watchdog said that two bloggers, two photographers and a cameraman have been arrested since the end of July.
“The authorities plan to impose a news blackout on the 14 August demonstration by jailing netizens and preventing journalists and human rights defenders from visiting Bahrain,” it said in a statement.