Bahraini security forces fanned out across the island in unprecedented numbers as Shiites marked the one-year anniversary of their uprising against the country’s Sunni rulers.
Authorities sent troop reinforcements and armoured vehicles to the predominantly Shiite villages around the capital Manama to prevent people from gathering and answering the call of the main opposition movement, Al Wefaq.
Six American members of an activist group were detained during the protests.
Authorities said they had broken the terms of their visa, and that they agreed to leave the country without further legal measures taken against them.
The government meanwhile threatened to take legal action against the organisers of protests on Monday that turned violent.
This could herald a new crackdown on Al Wefaq, which until last year was tolerated but which has suffered sporadic prosecutions and detentions after it took the lead in last year’s protests.
At least 40 people have been killed during a year of unprecedented political unrest in Bahrain. The island kingdom, the home of the US 5th Fleet, is the Gulf Arab nation hardest hit by upheaval during 2011’s Arab Spring protests.
The kingdom’s ruling dynasty has promised reforms to end the upheaval, although it refuses to make the far-reaching changes the protesters and Al Wefaq, have demanded. These include ending the monarchy’s ability to select the government, set key state policies and appoint most of the parliament members.
Police fired tear gas at protesters yesterday in an apparent attempt to pre-empt a repeat of the marches the night before, in which protesters made their largest effort in months to retake the city’s central roundabout.
Pearl Square had served as the epicentre of weeks of anti-government protests last year, and its reoccupation would be a major boost for the movement.
The government statement said many protesters on Monday departed from a pre-authorised route in Manama, turning the march into a riot after police arrived. It said Al Wefaq was responsible for the violence, because it failed to “control the crowd (and) that jeopardised the safety of the people along a busy main road”.
Legal procedures will be taken against the organisers of the march, the statement said.
Al Wefaq rejected the claim, and said that the “unfounded accusations” are part of the rulers’ efforts to discredit the group.
“They have used excessive force against the people throughout all this time, but people keep coming back to the streets to insist on their demand to have a role in the decisions about their country,” said Abdul Jalil Khalil, a former Al Wefaq parliamentarian.
Shiites account for about 70% of Bahrain’s population of some 525,000 people, but say they have faced decades of discrimination and are blocked from top political and security posts.
Sunni rulers made token concessions in June ahead of US-supported reconciliation talks between the monarchy and the opposition. A so-called national dialogue began in July, but Al Wefaq delegates pulled out of the talks, saying the government was not willing to discuss political reform.
Since then, no talks between the monarchy and the opposition have taken place. Street battles between security forces and protesters still flare up almost every day in the mainly Shiite villages around the capital.