Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Bahrain king releases political prisoners

By HADEEL AL-SHALCHI and BARBARA SURK, Associated Press Feb 22, 2011

MANAMA, Bahrain – Tens of thousands of red-and-white draped, flag-waving
protesters flooded this tiny kingdom's capital Tuesday, a massive show of
force against the embattled monarchy as the king made another concession
to the marchers — releasing dozens of political prisoners.

Upbeat, determined demonstrators took over Manama for the day, circling
the Bahrain Mall and Manama's financial district, symbols of the country's
recent prosperity, in a march to the heart of the protest at Pearl Square.

"Egypt, Tunisia — are we any different?" marchers chanted, calling for the
Sunni rulers they accuse of discriminating against the island's Shiite
majority to fall as the presidents of two other Arab countries have in
recent weeks.

Helicopters hovered overhead but security forces offered no resistance
after opening fire on protesters last week, and the size of the event
rivaled any of the major demonstrations so far in the eight-day uprising.

At least 50 prisoners were released included 25 Shiite activists on trial
since last year for plotting against the state, according to a leading
member of Bahrain's Shiite opposition, Abdul Jalil Khalil.

The release underlined how much the absolute rulers of Bahrain want to
kick start reform talks with opposition leaders.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the United States
welcomed the king's decision to release the prisoners and "initiate a
meaningful dialogue with the full spectrum of Bahraini society."

"As we have said, these steps need to be followed by concrete actions and
reform," she said. "There is no place for violence against peaceful

Two of those in the case are being tried in absentia, including prominent
opposition leader Hassan Meshaima, who has been in self-exile in London
since last year. Meshaima's return to Bahrain was imminent, his supporters

The activist's presence could bolster opposition forces seeking a harder
line against the Bahrain dynasty, including some who have called for the
complete ouster of the king and the family that has ruled for more than
200 years.

Meshaima's group, known as Haq, is considered more radical than the main
Shiite political bloc that has taken a central role in the revolt and is
seeking the establishment of a constitutional monarchy.

A small group of Bahraini army officers joined the ranks of protesters to
demand reforms and the resignation of the current government. They
condemned the soldiers who shot at protesters on Friday.

"What we did to the people was not heroic," said Yeussif Najri, an army
officer. "We ask the people to forgive us, we ask the people for

The government said Tuesday that the overall death toll was seven from
last week's clashes. Previous reports from opposition groups and hospital
officials in the past week set the death toll at eight, but the government
tally now appears accurate.

The government also said 25 people were hospitalized, but it's unclear
what degree of injury authorities used to arrive at that figure.
Opposition groups place the figure at more than 200. Associated Press
journalists at the main state hospital witnessed many dozens of people
being treated.

The attacks on protesters have brought stinging denunciations from
Bahrain's Western allies, including the United States. The U.S. maintains
very close ties with Bahrain, which hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.

Bahrain authorities withdrew the military Saturday and allowed protesters
to reclaim Pearl Square, the gathering point for the uprising and now a
tent city of protesters.

Bahrain's Shiite majority has complained of discrimination and political
persecution in the kingdom. They have staged protests in the past, but the
current unrest is the most serious against the Sunni rulers.

On Monday, Bahrain's crown prince called off Formula One's season-opening
race scheduled for March 13, handing another victory to protesters. Shiite
leaders said it would have been disrespectful the hold the race to which
Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa owns the rights

Sabkar told reporters the "immediate priority is to keep the peace and
maintain calm." She said the government, led by the same prime minister —
the king's uncle — for 40 years, was "deeply saddened by the tragic events
of the past few days and its condolences go out to those families who have
lost loved ones."

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