Bahrain crackdown: five killed, 286 held in raid on cleric’s town

Authorities have accused Sheikh Isa Qassim, sentenced Sunday to a suspended one-year jail term for illegal fundraising and money laundering

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 May, 2017, 2:05pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 May, 2017, 10:23pm

Bahrain police raided a town that is home to a prominent Shiite cleric facing possible deportation, arresting 286 people in an assault in which officers fired tear gas and shotguns at protesters. At least five demonstrators were killed and others wounded.

The Interior Ministry said Tuesday’s operation targeting Diraz, home to Sheikh Isa Qassim and a long-running sit-in supporting him, was to “maintain security and public order.”

It called the area a “haven for wanted fugitives from justice.”

Activists shared photographs and videos showing youths throwing stones and climbing on an armoured personnel carrier.

Gunfire could be heard in one video as white smoke from tear gas hung in the air. Another video showed a bulldozer smashing through the area that once hosted the sit-in.

Police arrested 286 people, including “terrorists and convicted felons” who hid inside of Qassim’s home, the Interior Ministry said. It said 19 members of the island’s security forces were wounded in the raid that saw protesters throw gasoline bombs.

“Forces were able to remove a series of illegal road blocks and barricades,” the ministry said in a statement.

“Police remain deployed in the area to ensure the safety of people.”

Amnesty International later said Qassim was not arrested.

At least five protesters were killed, activists and police said. Activists shared images of other protesters suffering what appeared to be birdshot wounds.

The operation followed a Sunday court decision giving Qassim a year’s suspended prison sentence and seizing assets belonging to him and his ministry. Two of his aides received similar sentences.

Police have besieged Qassim’s hometown of Diraz for months, tightly controlling access. He could be deported at any time after authorities stripped him of his citizenship last June over accusations that he fueled extremism. His supporters deny the allegations and called his trial politically motivated.

Shiites and others took part in 2011 Arab Spring protests for greater rights from the Sunni monarchy of Bahrain, home to the US Navy’s 5th Fleet and an under-construction British naval base. Bahrain put down the protests with the help of forces from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Since then, Bahrain has seen low-level unrest. But a yearlong government crackdown on dissent has raised the stakes, with local Shiite militant groups claiming some attacks. Bahrain long has accused Iran of aiding militants, something the Shiite power denies.

Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa met with US President Donald Trump during a Sunday summit in Saudi Arabia. Already, Trump’s administration had approved a multibillion-dollar sale of F-16 fighter jets to Bahrain without the human rights conditions imposed by the State Department under President Barack Obama.