MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) — The Sunni rulers in Bahrain are practicing "fake democracy," the Gulf kingdom's leading Shiite cleric said Friday as opposition groups called for a boycott of the parliament elections and stepped-up protests for greater rights.
The voting on Saturday is for 18 parliament seats abandoned by Shiite lawmakers six months ago to protest the crackdowns of anti-government demonstrations. Shiite-led groups have called for demonstrations to press demands for more freedoms from the Sunni monarchy that has ruled the tiny, but strategically important Gulf island for more than 200 years.
Friday's calls for dissent include marching to Manama's Pearl Square, the former epicenter of Bahrain's uprising that broke out in February, inspired by Arab revolts elsewhere.
Bahraini authorities have stepped up pressure on anti-government activists ahead of the elections, threatening those who use social media and websites to urge acts of dissent with jail.
"There is a class of society under repression and there are obstacles at every turn, blocking their voice," said Sheik Isa Qassim during Friday's sermon. The cleric told worshippers in a mosque in Diraz, an opposition stronghold northwest of the capital Manama, that the vote on Saturday is meaningless.
"This is fake democracy," Sheik Isa said.
The government has criticized calls for election boycott and said those refusing to vote Saturday aim to stall political reform in Bahrain.
Shiites make up a majority of Bahrain's people, but they have long complained of discrimination at the hands of the country's ruling Sunni dynasty and a lack of economic opportunities.
More than 30 people have died since the protests started in Bahrain, a tiny, but strategically important Gulf island that is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.
Hundreds of activists have been detained and brought to trial on anti-state charges in a special security court since March, when Bahrain's rulers imposed martial law and invited a Saudi-led Gulf military force to help deal with dissent.
Bahrain lifted emergency rule in June. Since then, government opponents have clashed with police almost every night.
Manama's landmark square has been heavily guarded since Bahrain's security forces stormed the protesters' encampment camp there six months ago.
On Friday, police checkpoints were erected on the streets leading up to Pearl Square. Armored police vehicles were seen parked near the former hub of anti-government protests and riot police were lined up behind the vehicles.
The opposition's boycott of Saturday's vote will likely tighten the grip of the kingdom's Sunni rulers, who have so far managed to ride out the Arab Spring's longest unrest with the help of allies, particularly other Gulf Sunni rulers. They fear any concessions to the Shiite opposition in Bahrain will strengthen the influence of Iran, Mideast's Shiite powerhouse.