The police officers, 20 of them, raised their weapons and fired rubber bullets and canisters of tear gas directly into a small group of protesters chanting slogans and holding signs on February 14. One man fell instantly and was shot at as he squirmed on the ground. Another was trapped against a wall and writhed as an officer shot rubber bullets at him, again.

That scene, on Avenue 28 around 5:30 p.m., was played out all over this island nation of Bahrain on February 14 as the police attacked peaceful protesters — men, women and children — chasing them down, firing at them with rubber bullets and overwhelming them with tear gas. At times the tear gas was so heavy, and fired with such abandon, that the police also succumbed, dropping to the ground to vomit.

This small nation in the Persian Gulf, with only about one million residents, half of them foreign workers, has long been among the most politically volatile in the region. The principal tension is between the royal family under King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa and the ruling elites, who are mostly Sunnis, on one side, and the approximately 70 per cent of the local population that is Shiite on the other. Occupying mostly run-down villages with cinder block buildings and little else, many Shiites say they face systemic discrimination in employment, housing, education and government.

It appeared that all of the protests on February 14 were in Shiite communities, with demands that were both economic and political. Young people said they mostly wanted jobs and a chance at a better life. But protesters young and old called for a new constitution and democratic changes to allow for a more effective representative Parliament and government. The king has been promising to open up the political system for a decade, but progress has been slow.

‘Day of Rage'

“We want real reforms, a real parliament elected by the people with real legislative power,” said Maryam al-Khawaja, 23, with the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. “We want a constitution written by the people.”

King Hamad and government officials had said that peaceful protests would be tolerated in what organisers had called Bahrain's “Day of Rage,” modelled on the protests in Egypt last month. But they were not. From early in the morning until well past sundown, the police attacked without warning any group that dared to gather in the street.

Organisers had hoped to join in one large demonstration at a central traffic circle beneath a mammoth statue of a pearl.

But they never had the chance.

“They're shooting at us like we were some sort of terrorists,” said Sharifeh al-Gharbil, 30, one of about 20 Shiite women and a scattering of men who gathered at the Duraz traffic circle. “But we're Bahrainis. We're not Sunni, we're not Westerners, we're not Jordanian, so we're nothing. I have no job, I have no hope and my family is hungry.”

Ms Gharbil and the other women wrapped themselves in their black chadors. One woman draped the red and white Bahraini flag over her shoulders and stepped into traffic. They all chanted in support of Bahrain and in opposition to their government, not their king.

The police poured into the circle in their Land Cruisers, rushing the women, encircling them and firing tear gas canisters, the crack of their weapons echoing in the narrow streets behind them. The women sat down, refusing to move even as the painfully acrid gas enveloped them, until it was so thick that the police ran, and the women, too.

“They shot me,” said Muhammad Shabar, 55, as he limped away from the Duraz circle, his right calf swollen and turning deep red and blue after being struck by a rubber bullet. His offence was chanting slogans.

The protests were organised in the wake of the momentous events in Tunisia and Egypt, where young people using tools like Twitter and Facebook managed to set off a general public uprising that forced out two of the region's most entrenched and autocratic leaders. Organisers here also created a Facebook page that drew thousands of followers. They created telephone chains to post updates on Twitter and to e-mail pictures and post them on the Internet.

Divided population

But unlike Egypt and Tunisia, Bahrain has a divided population. Part of that is religious, but it is also geographically divided. With communities separated by roads, bridges and massive malls, there are few public spaces where like-minded people can gather.

The authorities used that to their strategic advantage on February 14, blocking roads and sealing people behind walls of tear gas whenever they tried to move. Instead of one large protest, demonstrators were restricted to villages around this capital city, with a few scattered protests in the city centre. The Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights reported protests in at least 16 villages.

In a statement, the government said that on the night of February 14 that it had a long history of allowing peaceful protests, and that any improper police activity would be investigated.

“Bahrain has long recognised peaceful and legal protest as a democratic right underpinning freedom of expression,” said a statement by Shaikh Fawaz al-Khalifa, president of the Information Affairs Authority. “However, in some incidents there has been a flagrant disregard for a well-established process to allow demonstrators to voice any grievances. The authorities are actively managing the situation in a manner that allows others to continue their daily lives while respecting the legal right and approach to peaceful protest.”

In the village of Beni Jamar, a few hundred demonstrators gathered behind a large sign displaying portraits of Nelson Mandela, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi[ji]. They marched toward the road chanting slogans when the police charged in without warning, firing tear gas canisters and rubber bullets into the crowd. The protesters scattered. Abbas Mehdi, 25, and Sayed Ali, 11, were themselves overwhelmed with tear gas as they collapsed in an empty field not far from the police. The child was crying and gagging as Mr. Mehdi tried to help, rubbing a small onion across his face and nose.

The police attacked again as six tear gas canisters slammed down beside them. Furious, a young man beside Mr. Mehdi hurled rocks at the police.

Mr. Mehdi started screaming: “Don't throw rocks at them! We're peaceful. Stop! We have to remain peaceful. We're just here to explain how we feel. We want to make our voices are heard. In any case, we don't have a single weapon. The other side has them all.”— © New York Times News Service

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