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 Shiite opposition lawmaker said yesterday.
The prisoner release was a further concession to the mainly Shiite protesters who took to the streets last week to demand a constitutional monarchy and an elected government.
It also preceded the expected return to Bahrain of Hassan Mushaimaa, leader of the Shiite Haq party, who had been tried in absentia for his part in the alleged coup plot.
Ibrahim Mattar of the main Shiite 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 Shiites have long complained of discrimination in Sunni-ruled Bahrain. 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.
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.
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 Shiite clerics, were put on trial in October after a broad security crackdown on some Shiite 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 US has tried to walk a fine 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 Shiite 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 Shiite protesters filled streets in Manama on Tuesday demanding the fall of the Sunni-run government in the biggest protest since unrest began last week.
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