Bahraini Shiites Protest After Prayers


Thousands of Bahraini Shiites defied martial law to renew their pro-democracy protests on Friday, as they gathered after prayers and to bury a victim of the security forces' bloody crackdown.

"We sacrifice blood and soul for Bahrain," they chanted, alongside calls for restraint and non-violence in the face of alleged crimes against international law committed by the Sunni-ruled kingdom's police and military.

Others chanted "Allahu akbar" (God is greatest) and "we will not be humiliated" as they rallied in the village of Diraz, just outside the capital Manama, after Friday prayers.

Thousands had gathered to listen to a sermon by Sheikh Issa Qassem, Bahrain's senior Shiite cleric, before the demonstration began.

People demanding rights and reform "do not believe in violence that authorities are trying to push them to," Qassem said in the sermon.

"The peaceful approach has been our choice since day one," he said.

As buses packed with security personnel arrived at the scene, the crowd set off for the nearby village of Sitra where the funeral was being held of a young unemployed man killed in clashes with police on Tuesday.

Relatives said Ahmed Farhan, 28, died instantly when he was shot in the head from a helicopter shortly after the U.S.-backed government declared martial law in a bid to put down a month of Shiite-led unrest.

The country's Shiite-led opposition had called for peaceful protests on Friday "within the praying areas" rather than on the streets, and for sit-ins on Saturday.

The protests are the first since security forces firing tear gas and shotguns assaulted a month-old pro-democracy sit-in at Manama's Pearl Square on Wednesday, killing three.

Bahraini police have been reinforced with more than 1,000 armored troops from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, but the foreign forces have kept a low profile.

U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon called King Hamad late Thursday to warn the crackdown might be breaking international law, after the world body's human rights chief cited "credible" reports of "shocking and illegal" abuses.

Ban expressed his "deepest concern" over reports of excessive force by the security forces "against unarmed civilians, including, allegedly, against medical personnel," a U.N. statement said.

The abuses allegedly include killings, withholding treatment from the wounded and attacks on doctors as they try to help injured protesters. The government denies the claims.

U.N. rights chief Navi Pillay said Thursday any takeover by the security forces of hospitals was a "blatant violation of international law."

"There are reports of arbitrary arrests, killings, beatings of protesters and of medical personnel, and of the takeover of hospitals and medical centers by various security forces," she said.

Dissidents have been rounded up at gunpoint in midnight raids and armed police have been posted outside Manama's Salmaniya hospital. State television has reported that police raided the hospital to "cleanse" it of "saboteurs."

Opposition MP Khalil al-Marzouk said Doctor Ali al-Ekri, who had been accused on state TV of spreading "fabrications" about conditions at the hospital, was arrested there on Thursday.

The violence in the strategic kingdom has alarmed Washington and sparked furious condemnation from Shiite power Iran, Shiite leaders in Iraq and Hizbullah.

Bahrain is a key U.S. ally, the home of the U.S. Fifth Fleet which contributes to the war in Afghanistan, and a major regional banking centre.

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