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Bahrain Rings in the New Year With Arrests, Tear Gas and Protests

Baby girl surrounded by tear gas, with her mother and her siblings heading to their car during the clashes

Manama, Bahrain. 2nd January 2015 — Baby girl surrounded by tear gas, with her mother and her siblings heading to their car during the clashes. — Violent clashes between protesters and police troops continue in Bahrain, after Sheikh Ali Salman was arrested. Opposition protesters call for his immediate release. Photograph by Sayed Baqer Al Kamel. Copyright: Demotix

Bahrain, where a crackdown following a popular uprising continues, has welcomed another year with a heavy baggage from the year before. The heads of the two largest political groups (Al Wefaq Islamic Society‘s Shaikh Ali Salman and the National Democratic Action Society‘s (Waad) Ebrahim Sharif) are in prison, the leaders of the 2011 protests are also in jail and all the country's leading human rights activists are either in exile or facing trial.

Bahrain's Twittersphere is one of the most active in Arab countries, where Bahrainis use Twitter as one of the few channels still available — not without perils though — to demonstrate dissent.

Celebrating New Year in his own style, Bahrain's Minister of Justice and Islamic Affairs Khaled bin Ali Al Khalifa tweeted what many saw as a veiled threat to opposition to the regime:

A lot of positive things happened in 2014, and 2015 promises us more, and it's really causing a political headache to those betrayed by their misjudgment for positive interaction

This comes after a spat between the minister and the opposition regarding the widely boycotted parliamentary elections of 2014. The head of the largest opposition group, Al Wefaq's Shaikh Ali Salman, was arrested last week, on December 28, 2014, just before the first session of the new parliament whose elections he had called to boycott convened.

In another tweet, the justice minister quoted a poet, threatening to chop off his opponents heads:

Antar Bin Shaddad [a paganist poet] said: My sword in wars was the medicine which healed those with headaches

At the other end of the political spectrum, the leader of Bahrain's secular group The Progressive Tribune Abdulnabi Salman tweeted sarcastically:

It was a fantastic New Year's Eve, saying goodbye to 2014 with the smell of tear gas. Thanks to all of those who delivered us this joy

In a follow up tweet, he wrote:

Anyway, I wish all Bahrainis, women and men, young and old, happiness and joy with a New Year in which we move beyond our grievances and look towards a better future #Bahrain

In an omen to another year of the ongoing crackdown, Bahrain's authorities ordered the detention of the general secretary of the largest political bloc. Ali Salman was just re-elected as the secretary general two days prior to his arrest. The charges against him are related to contacting regimes and organizations abroad to discuss Bahrain's “internal affairs”. The foreign interference issue has been raised against multiple countries since the crackdown, including the United States, Iran, Qatar, and even Ireland, which have been on the list of countries “conspiring” with the opposition before.

Salman's arrest brings back memories of 20 years ago, when his arrest sparked the 1990s uprising in Bahrain. As a leading figure in Bahrain's political scene, Salman won the highest voter turnout when he participated in the 2006 parliamentary elections. Naturally, his arrest sparked a series of protests across Bahrain, which continue to this day.

Twitter user @FreedomPrayers tweeted a video showing some of the aspects of the New Year's “celebrations” in the capital Manama, where protesters demonstrated against Salman's arrest:

Activist John Horne shared another video of a protester defying a police armoured personnel carrier near the house of Ali Salman, only to be shot from behind as he was trying to flee:

The unrest following Salman's arrest caused what some referred to as the abolition of legal opposition in Bahrain:

Bahrain's main source of income is oil, whose prices are plunging to below US $55 a barrel. Studies suggest the government will hit a deficit and not even be able to cover the salaries of government employees when the barrel drops to US $45.

Meanwhile, more than 3,000 of the country's 600,000 population are imprisoned for their participation in the uprising and the region has just wrapped up one its most violent years in decades. It might be hard to see much of the “positives” of 2014, but I'm keeping some faith that 2015 will be a better year away from swords and headaches.

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