Font Size

- Aa +

Wed 23 Feb 2011 03:23 PM

Font Size

- Aa +

Bahrain frees prisoners to mollify crowds of protesters

Bahrain frees 23 accused in coup plot against monarchy in sop to anti-government crowds

Bahrain frees prisoners to mollify crowds of protesters
Anti-government protesters hoist a released political prisoner in the air in the Pearl roundabout late on February 22, 2011 in Manama, Bahrain. Dozens of prisoners were released on orders by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa as the government continued talks with opposition leaders. (Getty Images)
Bahrain frees prisoners to mollify crowds of protesters
Bahrain protesters show victory signs as 23 prisoners are released
Bahrain frees prisoners to mollify crowds of protesters
Released political prisoners celebrate in Bahrains Pearl roundabout

Bahrain
has freed 23 people accused of trying to topple the island's Sunni Muslim
monarchy, along with other prisoners and people detained in last week's
protests, a Shi'ite opposition lawmaker said on Wednesday.

The
prisoner release was a further concession to the mainly Shi'ite protesters who
took to the streets last week to demand a constitutional monarchy and an
elected government, emboldened by a surge of popular unrest across the Arab
world.

It
also preceded the expected return to Bahrain of Hassan Mushaimaa, leader of the
hardline Shi'ite Haq party, who had been tried in absentia for his part in the
alleged coup plot.

Ibrahim
Mattar of the main Shi'ite Wefaq party said more than 100 prisoners had been
freed overnight, but dozens remained in jail. Those released included 21 common
criminals, he said.

"Allowing
the people to protest and releasing those people are positive moves,"
Mattar said. Opposition groups were waiting for the royal family to accept the
principle of a constitutional monarchy before they would enter into a dialogue,
he added.

Majority
Shi'ites have long complained of discrimination in Sunni-ruled Bahrain, which
is a close US and Saudi ally. They want to overhaul the current system where
Bahrainis vote for a parliament that has little power and policy remains the
preserve of an elite centred on the royal al-Khalifa family.

The
al-Khalifa dynasty has ruled Bahrain for 200 years, and the family dominates a
cabinet led by the king's uncle, who has been prime minister since independence
from Britain in 1971.

Concessions
so far have been to allow peaceful protests and to offer dialogue on reform.

"The
main point we are waiting for is the initiative for political reform. Until now
they didn't promise anything," Mattar said. "If they don't say it, we
are wasting our time."

The
release of political prisoners has been a demand of protesters seeking an elected
government in Bahrain, where seven people were killed and hundreds wounded in
protests last week.

Among
the first to be freed late on Tuesday night was a group of youths apparently
picked up during the demonstrations.

Two
dozen relatives waited at the jail for the teenagers, who emerged one by one
with solemn, unshaven faces. Some waved victory signs..

The
23 men in prison for the coup plot, who include some Shi'ite clerics, were put
on trial in October after a broad security crackdown on some Shi'ite opposition
groups in August.

US
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised Bahrain's king and crown prince for
freeing political prisoners, allowing peaceful demonstrations and offering
talks with the opposition.

"These
steps will need to be followed by concrete actions and reforms," she told
reporters on Tuesday, warning that "there is no place for violence against
peaceful protesters".

In
Bahrain, as in Egypt and Tunisia, the United States has tried to walk a
difficult line in dealing with popular revolts against entrenched Arab leaders
long allied to Washington.

"Across
the Middle East, people are calling on their governments to be more open, more
accountable and more responsive. Without genuine progress toward open and
accountable political systems the gap between people and their governments can
only grow and instability can only deepen," Clinton said.

Mushaimaa,
the Shi'ite opposition leader, was due to have returned from exile in London on
Tuesday, but was barred from a Bahrain-bound flight from Beirut where he had
stopped over.

Tens
of thousands of Shi'ite protesters filled streets in Manama on Tuesday
demanding the fall of the Sunni-run government in the biggest protest since
unrest began last week.

The
Bahrain government denies it treats Shi'ites unfairly. In a rally covered by
state television on Monday, thousands carried Bahraini flags and signs
supporting unity and dialogue.