19:29 GMT +314 October 2019
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    A police officer pulls a burning tyre from a highway that Bahraini anti-government protesters blocked near Jidhafs, Bahrain

    West’s Awkward Partner: Bahrain Seeing Major Protests

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    Bahrain has been seeing more protests over the detention of the country's opposition leader. Events in the Gulf kingdom hit the headlines late last year during controversial elections. At around that time the UK also announced a plan to build a permanent military base there.

    Bahrain, which is also home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet and hosts another American military facility, has for the past five days been the scene of renewed clashes between pro-democracy protesters and police. The US State Department has been compelled to voice ‘deep concern' over continued detention of Bahraini opposition leader Sheikh Ali Salman. 

    Meanwhile, less than a month ago when announcing plans for a £15m British military facility in the island kingdom, UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said the country was ‘making progress' on human rights.

    Continued Mass Protests

    Bahrain, a majority Shia nation ruled by a Sunni monarchy, has been seeing mass protests since early 2011, inspired by the Arab Spring in neighbouring countries. The protests were quashed with the help of Saudi and UAE troops and with clear-cut approval of the United States. Thousands of activists remain in jail since then. The country's laws envisage lengthy prison terms for criticising the king, Hamad al-Khalifa. 

    The current wave of protests and clashes was triggered by the recent parliamentary elections which were marred by accusations of widespread vote-rigging. 

    Sheik Ali Salman, leader of the Shi'ite al-Wefaq Islamic Society which boycotted the parliamentary election, was arrested and charged over employing ‘illegal means' to press for political change. The arrest sparked further protests in the capital, Manama, with police using tear gas and batons and arresting dozens more. 

    Meanwhile, Bahrain's Prosecution said Sheikh Ali Salman was interrogated on charges that include "spreading ideas to defy the regime and authorities". They won't disclose what the charges relate to specifically but Sheikh Ali Salman has repeatedly resisted any calls for a radicalisation of the protest movement and consistently stood for keeping it peaceful.

    ‘Reward for Silence'

    Protesters in Bahrain accuse the US and Britain of propping up the ruling regime which ‘buys their silence' with lucrative arms contracts and this latest offer to not just host the UK military base, but to pay the bulk of its construction costs. Bahraini opposition says the monarchy survives thanks to US and British military support. 

    In a recent interview with Sputnik News Jawad Fairooz, a former Bahraini MP who was tortured during the 2011 protests and now lives stateless in the UK, blamed the international community, saying it had not done enough for his human rights. In an apparent reference to Bahrain's western partners he said "political interest is more important for them. It is more of a priority for them than upholding human rights values".

    Meanwhile, a prominent Bahraini activist Nabeel Rajab who has just served two years in jail for attending ‘illegal gatherings', described the UK military base deal as a "reward for UK silence on human rights violations".

    Earlier, the UK government approved over £30m worth of arms export licenses to Bahrain, including assault rifles, pistols and naval guns. Bahraini opposition sees that as another display of British support for the Bahraini government.

    In its statement on the detention of Sheikh Ali Salman the State Department said: "We are concerned that this action against a senior leader of the opposition will only inflame tensions."  It stands to reason to deduce from the statement that what the US really fears is a radicalisation of the protests in Bahrain which could eventually jeopardise its standing in the country as a kingpin in the US global reach. 

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