MANAMA (Reuters) – The funeral march for Mohammed Yaacoub had barely ended last week when police and protesters faced off in the town of Sitra, an impoverished district of Bahrain that has borne the brunt of a year of unrest.
Teenagers using scarves to mask their faces went on a rampage wielding iron bars and petrol bombs, and riot police in their prim blue uniforms and white helmets fired off teargas rounds and stormed down alleyways in their trademark jeeps.
“People have no alternative — all we have is tires to burn and Molotovs to throw,” one activist said. “As long as the government is not ready to respond, anything is possible.”
The Bahrain government’s security tactics and offer of concessions appear to have failed in calming the streets; if anything the conflict with opposition activists pushing for democratic reforms has become more violent in recent weeks.
Thousands of pro-democracy protesters took to Bahrain’s streets last February and March, occupying a central roundabout in Manama, following revolts in Egypt and Tunisia.
As talks on political reforms stalled and some demands shifted to ditching the ruling Al Khalifa family, hardliners in the government brought in Saudi troops and imposed martial law in a bid to quash a movement that was feared to be large enough to pose a real threat to the existing order.
By the time martial law was lifted in June, 35 people had died, including four in police custody and several security personnel.
But the tensions have not gone away. Police continue to clash with disaffected youth in underdeveloped neighborhoods populated by the island state’s majority Shi’ite Muslim population, who complain of political and economic marginalization by the ruling elite of Al Khalifa and allied families.
Activists say at least 25 people have died since June, in some cases after exposure to teargas or in incidents as police in cars storm down alleyways in pursuit of teenagers.
At least ten of these deaths occurred in the last two months, after a commission of international legal scholars charged with investigating claims of widespread rights abuses during the period of martial law at the end of November delivered a damning report revealing torture of detainees and flawed military trials.