MANAMA (Dispatches) --
Bahrainis on Saturday voted in parliamentary elections held in an environment rights groups described as “political repression” since the Persian Gulf Arab state has dissolved the main opposition groups and cracked down on dissent.
Ahead of the vote, which includes municipal polls, rights group Amnesty International criticized “highly restrictive measures” that bar members of banned opposition groups and those who have served jail terms longer than six months.
“Holding this general election will not address the atmosphere of repression and the denial of human rights that has gripped Bahrain for years,” Amnesty said in a statement.
Demonstrators took to the streets in the coastal village of Dumistan, carrying pictures of Bahrain’s most prominent cleric Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassim, imprisoned political dissidents as well as those killed at the hands of regime forces.
They expressed solidarity with political prisoners and jailed activists and called on people to stay away from the ballot boxes.
In the northern villages of Abu Saiba and Shakhura, groups of demonstrators called for an election boycott, a comprehensive political solution and a transition from the monarchy to the rule of the people.
A similar rally was staged in Muthallath al-Samoud region, where participants demanded boycott of the elections and a new constitution.
Earlier, Sheikh Qassim reiterated the call to boycott parliamentary elections, saying participation in the elections amounts to betrayal.
“The responsibility of Bahrainis is to boycott the election, and participation in it is a betrayal,” he said in a televised address broadcast live on Friday on several Arabic-language television networks.
Bahrain, a U.S. ally, has jailed thousands, including opposition leaders, sometimes in mass trials.
The government said 344,713 voters were eligible to vote, down from 365,467 in the last polls in 2018.
London-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, describing the vote as a “sham”, said legislation on voter inclusion appeared to target individuals who boycotted earlier polls.
Justice Minister Nawaf al-Ma’awda, when asked, told reporters at a polling station that the voter list did not include individuals who did not previously vote but that they “were given the chance to then register”.
A government spokesperson later said in a statement that “no one is penalized for choosing not to vote” and that the elections had seen “more