1 Year Later, Bahrainis Demand More Changes

Tuesday marks one year since uprisings in Bahrain were crushed by security forces. Since then, the Sunni-ruling family has pledged to make changes and called for dialogue with the largely Shi'ite opposition. Critics say what has been done so far has been inadequate.

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One year ago this week, protesters began an uprising in Bahrain. The demonstrators in that Persian Gulf nation joined protests elsewhere in the Arab world. But the protesters were mostly Shiite Muslims and they were crushed by forces loyal to the Sunni royal family. The government got help from neighboring Saudi Arabia.

After an independent commission detailed abuses by the authorities and suggested reforms, some people are hoping to move forward. The trouble though, is the absence of trust, not to mention the potential for more violence. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Nearly a year after being driven out of the pearl roundabout, the now-demolished traffic circle that symbolized Bahrain's uprising, demonstrators are still trying to get back there.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOTS FIRED AND SHOUTS IN FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

KENYON: But riot police have other ideas. They're refraining from the violence that caused dozens of deaths last year, but the steady use of percussion grenades and teargas is dispersing protesters before they can merge into a larger mass.

Most of the demonstrators are unarmed and peaceful, but a few young men with masked faces carry Molotov cocktails. In one alley a man is watching from his doorway. Fearful of retaliation, he asks that his name not be used when he says most people don't support the recent attacks on security forces by young men he calls Molotovers. But doesn't get to complete his thought.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Most of people - most of - they don't agree with these 'Molotovers' themselves. The...

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

KENYON: He ducks back inside as the alley is filled with running bodies, trying to escape the billowing clouds of gas. The opposition's grievances – most having to do with majority Shiites feeling oppressed by the Sunni minority here – developed over decades, and analysts say they won't be solved as quickly as the ruling family and its allies in Riyadh and Washington would like.

Theodore Karasik at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis says Bahrain's internal problems are overshadowed by its dominant neighbor, Saudi Arabia, which fears that Shiite-led Iran is fomenting sectarian unrest on its doorstep.

THEODORE KARASIK: There has been no hard evidence of any real Iranian interference in this uprising that still continues every day. Every day there are riots.

KENYON: The government says every day there is also progress on reforms recommended last fall by an independent commission. Bahrainis hired police advisors, including Irishman John Timoney, who says there are some similarities between Bahrain's situation and that of Northern Ireland, where religious or sectarian passions inflamed longstanding disputes. He's glad to see Bahrain is moving to hold those accused of torturing protesters last year to account. He says incidents that occur on the front lines are one thing.

JOHN TIMONEY: What can never be excused or never be explained away, is the whole issue of people dying as a result of torture. There's no way - no humane, decent, democratic society could ever permit that.

KENYON: Opposition activists put the number of demonstrators tortured in the hundreds, figures Bahraini officials say are greatly exaggerated. Timoney says other reforms will take longer, such as bringing more Shiites onto the force.

TIMONEY: It's going to take the better part of five or ten years, so that hopefully ten years from now you have a police force that kind of reflects the population that it serves.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIR HORNS)

KENYON: Large, peaceful opposition gatherings have featured the familiar, four-beat rhythm that stands in for the chant down, down Hamad, a call for the ouster of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. That's a step too far for moderate Bahrainis. Two demonstrators, who give their names as Amal and Mahmoud, say there's simply not enough trust to allow for compromise.

AMAL: One step forward, ten backwards, it's not getting us anywhere, so...

MAHMOUD: We're not seeing any proper, clear moves by the government. There's no signs of goodwill.

ALI FAKHRO: My friend, it is only when the climate is very bad and when there is no trust that you should do something.

KENYON: If there is to be a political reconciliation in Bahrain, former health and education minister Ali Fakhro may be the one to get it started. If his non-partisan group manages to convene a discussion on seven key political reforms, that may be a sign that Bahrain is ready to move past its current stalemate.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Bahrain.

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