Bahrain paralysed by legacy of Arab Spring
With a popular, reform-minded crown prince newly installed as prime minister, and a decade passed since the Arab Spring, Bahrain should be well placed to cast off the painful legacy of its uprising.
The Pearl monument in downtown Manama -- the centre of the protests before they were crushed with the help of Saudi forces -- has long since been razed. But the nation's wounds remain raw and there is still no room for dissent.
The 2011 uprising, inspired by revolutions sweeping the region, ended in a bloody crackdown against the mainly Shiite demonstrators who had demanded an elected government, threatening the Sunni monarchy's grip on power.
Bahrain assailed the movement as an Iranian plot, and banned opposition parties, put civilians in front of military courts and jailed dozens of peaceful political opponents, eliciting harsh international criticism.
"Ten years after Bahrain's popular uprising, systemic injustice has intensified and political repression... has effectively shut any space for the peaceful exercise of the right to freedom of expression," Amnesty International said in a statement.
The criticism rankles in Bahrain, a charming country with a rich heritage, and a vibrant tourism industry which is a big draw for its more straitlaced Gulf neighbours.
Ahead of February 14, which marks the start of the uprising, there is a tight police presence in Shiite villages and highways where during past anniversaries demonstrators blocked traffic by burning tyres.
The Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) said it had received reports that at least 18 adults and 11 children had been arrested in rounds of detentions.
The London-based group said it had verified that several of the children, one aged just 11, were ordered to be held for seven days in an apparent crackdown "aimed at deterring protests to mark the 10th anniversary".
Bahraini authorities confirmed to AFP Friday that two 13-year-olds had been detained at a "Juvenile Care Centre until they appear in court again where the appropriate legal measures will be taken".
Aya Majzoub from Human Rights Watch told AFP: "They're snuffing out dissent before people protest, to send a very clear sign that dissent won't be tolerated."
Appetite for reform?
Bahrain's crown prince, Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, was appointed prime minister last November after the death of his great uncle, who had held the post since independence in 1971.
Prince Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, the world's longest-serving prime minister, was deeply unpopular with the Shiite population and accused of opposing reforms and orchestrating crackdowns.
His successor, from a new generation of Western-educated Gulf leaders, is a moderate who has tried to build bridges with opponents, and his rise has inspired cautious optimism that he might move towards reconciliation.
But observers say he will be hamstrung by Bahrain's dependence on its giant neighbour Saudi Arabia, which together with the UAE rode in to rescue the monarchy in 2011, continues to bankroll it, and has no taste for democratic reforms.
"The prime minister will face the same constraints that face the country: fiscal limitations and tight diplomatic control from neighbouring contributor states," said Kristin Diwan from the Arab Gulf States Institute.
"Still the crown prince has demonstrated previously some ingenuity in carving out space for independent action," she said, adding there may yet be an opportunity for more enlightened policies.
Under President Joe Biden, there are expectations the US will spotlight human rights failings across the Gulf, after the region was given free reign under Donald Trump.
Jawad Fairooz, a lawmaker with the banned Al-Wefaq opposition party who was stripped of his nationality and now lives in exile, said hopes for change rest on US pressure, together with any rapprochement between Saudi and its Shiite rival Iran.
"The question is, does he have a certain vision and plans for major change?" he said of the crown prince, whose efforts to reach out to the opposition in 2011 came to nothing.
"I don't believe he will have the power to practice this vision and make it reality.”
Unrest has simmered in Bahrain since independence, but following Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, it witnessed renewed pro-democracy protests.
Shiite-led demonstrations intensified in 1994, demanding an elected parliament and a more equitable distribution of wealth. The unrest lasted until 1999, when reforms turned Bahrain into a constitutional monarchy.
But protesters were back on the street in February 2011, demanding a "real" constitutional monarchy with an elected premier.
Dozens are believed to have died in the unrest, although the toll remains unclear. The landmark where the protesters had camped out was bulldozed.
"The fate of Pearl Roundabout symbolises the Bahraini government's attempt to suppress and erase even the memory of the protests," said Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty's deputy regional director.
"A site of peaceful assembly, hope and progress is now just concrete and asphalt."