DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Bahrain has arrested four American journalists covering the anniversary of its 2011 uprising amid a long crackdown on dissent in the tiny island nation, witnesses said Monday.
Bahrain said it detained the four for entering the country without obtaining a media visa and for "participating in an unlawful gathering." The U.S. Embassy in Manama said in a statement Monday it was "aware of the arrest of four U.S. citizens in Bahrain" on Sunday but that it could not discuss the case due to privacy concerns.
The identities of the journalists and whether they worked for a specific media outlet was not immediately clear. Photographs of the reporters working in Sitra, a largely Shiite community south of the capital that has seen repeated protests, circulated on social media, including one image of a woman being filmed while speaking to a masked protester.
On Sunday, police arrested a photographer working with the group, the two witnesses said. Later that night, police surrounded the area with checkpoints and arrested the other three, the witnesses said. The witnesses spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity for fear of being arrested.
An Arabic language police statement carried by the state-run Bahrain News Agency accused one of the four journalists of wearing a mask and being part of "subversive elements" rioting, committing vandalism and attacking security forces. It also said the journalists entered the country on tourist visas. Bahrain requires international journalists to obtain special media visas before entering Bahrain to work.
An English language version of the statement did not include much of that detail. Neither version identified those arrested as Americans.
"The four are suspected of offenses including entering Bahrain illegally ... (submitting) false information to border staff and participating in an unlawful gathering," that statement read. "They have been afforded full legal rights in line with the kingdom's procedures and constitution while investigations continue."
Bahraini officials did not respond to requests for comment from the AP.
The 2011 protests in Bahrain, which is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, were the largest of the Arab Spring wave of demonstrations to rock the Gulf Arab states. They were driven by the country's Shiite majority, who demanded greater political rights from the Sunni-led monarchy.
But while changes swept across the region, Bahrain's own protests found themselves put down after Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates sent in reinforcements. Bahrain blamed regional Shiite power Iran for stirring up the demonstrations, though a government-sponsored investigation into the unrest said there wasn't "a discernable link" between the protests and the Islamic Republic based on the information the government gave them.
Bahrain's government committed to a number of reforms in the wake of the 2011 demonstrations, but low-level unrest continues, particularly in Shiite communities. Small groups of activists frequently clash with riot police and bombs occasionally target security forces. Hundreds of Bahraini youths protested Sunday on the fifth anniversary of the uprising.