Protests defy repression across Middle East

October 7, 2011
Thousands take part in a protest against Yemeni President Ali Abdulla Salh. Sana’a, September 16.

Pro-democracy protesters in Bahrain have gone on the offensive in the face of government repression and harsh sentences for activists arrested in the first wave of protests in February and March.

Large protests began on September 23 against sham by-elections for Bahrain’s toothless parliament. Most people heeded the democracy movement’s call for a boycott — only about 17% turned out to vote, said on September 25.

Police blocked attempts by protesters to reach the previous epicentre of the protests — the now-demolished Pearl Roundabout, known as Martyr’s Square by protesters.

Mobilisations have continued, often in the form of pitched battles between young protesters and police.

A protester named Ali told Associated Press on September 26: “We know these kinds of fights will not bring down the regime. But it sends a message that we are here and we will not rest.

“We feel we are under occupation by a system we no longer respect.”

Police also banned a planned action on October 4 to form a human chain on a main road in protest against harsh sentences handed to democracy activists and doctors arrested during the government crackdown in March, said on October 5.

At least 81 people have been jailed and hundreds more await trial, AP said on October 5. Among those, 20 doctors and nurses were jailed for between five and 15 years, the Australian said on September 30.

They were accused of violently taking over a hospital and seeking to overthrow the government. In reality, they were jailed for treating protesters who were injured by pro-government forces and for speaking to foreign media.

They said in a statement on September 29 the charges were baseless and the sentences were politically motivated.

“We believe that the message the government is trying to deliver to the people of Bahrain and to the world through our case is that treating wounded protesters is a crime, and telling the stories of what we witnessed in the media is an even larger crime,” the statement said.

Dr Ali Al Ekri, sentenced to 15 years in jail, told on October 5 that he was constantly tortured and forced to sign a false confession. Similar stories have been told by other political prisoners.

Ekri said: “Different groups of thugs would come in and torture me. They would kick and punch me until I would lose consciousness or fall down. They would spit on me and they would treat me like a dog.

“They forced me to do many things. They would make me kiss the bottom of their shoes, and they forced me to eat their faeces. I could not tolerate that.”

United States deputy State Department spokesperson Mark Toner said on September 29 that the US government was “deeply disturbed” by the sentences. However, the lack of any action against Bahrain exposes the hollowness of these words.

Bahrain has long been home to the US Navy’s fifth fleet and an airbase. Bahrain is key to the US’s control of oil shipping routes and as a base from which to threaten Iran.

The survival of the Bahraini monarchy rests largely on support from the US and Saudi Arabia.

The violence in Bahrain has been mirrored in Yemen, where violence has spiked since September 18. Government troops fired on protesters with anti-aircraft guns and automatic weapons, said that day.

Government troops also shelled the funerals of protesters and the main protest camp in the capital Sana’a on September 22, AP said that day.

Further protests broke out after the return of hated president Ali Abdullah Saleh on September 23 after three months in Saudi Arabia recovering from an assassination attempt.

Saleh has backtracked on promises to leave power three times since April, Xinhua said on September 29, leaving the country in an increasingly chaotic state.

This destabilisation has led some of Saleh’s Western backers to lose patience and the US called for him to sign up to a power transfer plan on October 1, Reuters said that day.

Saleh had authorised vice president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to begin initial negotiations with the opposition and the plan’s sponsors, the Gulf Cooperation Council and the US, on September 12, Xinhua said. said on October 3: “Orchestrated between Saleh’s regime, Yemen’s unpopular political opposition, US and Saudi officials, the deal offers Saleh and his family immunity for their crimes, allocates additional time to resign and schedules a presidential election too soon for Yemen’s protesters to organize ...

“Yemen’s revolutionaries widely reject the initiative as a false exit, one that Saleh himself refuses to take. He prefers to remain in power until an election is held at an indefinite point in the future.”

Despite the strength of the mass movement against Saleh, some of his elite rivals have positioned themselves to take over from him. These include “the Ahmar family, which leads a confederation of Yemen’s well-armed tribes, and a rebel general and Saleh kinsman, Ali Mohsen,” Reuters said on October 3.

Yemeni protesters united with their counterparts in Syria on September 30, in a day of protest called the “Friday of Victory for our Syria and our Yemen,” BBC Arabic said that day.

Syrian opposition groups announced the formation of a united front against the government of Bashar Al Assad, AFP said on October 3. The Syrian National Council (SNC) is “open to all Syrians”, said SNC member Burhan Ghalioun.

He also said: “The council rejects any outside interference that undermines the sovereignty of the Syrian people.”

Protesters in Syria have remained steadfast despite daily horrific brutality dished out by the government.

One example of the government’s gruesome acts took place in the small town of Rastan, which was besieged by the Syrian army for a week, said on October 4.

Despite resistance from deserting soldiers, the army took control of the town after sending in 250 tanks, AFP said on October 3.

A witness told the army heavily shelled the town and detained more than 3000 people, torturing many.

The army, along with pro-government thugs, also burnt down a makeshift hospital full of injured people after stealing its supplies.

Pro-government thugs were also reported to have stolen the bodies of dead protesters from their graves.

A witness also said many “soldiers and officers were executed after they refused to shoot at civilians or tried to defect”.

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