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Middle East
Bahrain frees political prisoners
At least 50 people released, including 23 Shia activists accused of a coup plot, in response to protesters' demands.
Last Modified: 23 Feb 2011 09:51 GMT
Bahrain's king ordered the release of prisoners in an attempt to appease protesters demanding reform [Reuters]

At least 50 political prisoners have been released in Bahrain, including 23 Shia activists accused of plotting to overthrow the kingdom's al-Khalifa dynasty.

The state also pardoned two others abroad, including opposition leader Hassan Mashaima, an MP told the AFP news agency.

The move late on Tuesday comes after state media reported that King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa had ordered the release of prisoners, a demand of protesters seeking an elected government in the country.

Ibrahim Mattar of the Shia Wefaq party told the Reuters news agency it was a "positive move" but that dozens still remain in jail.

"Allowing the people to protest and releasing those people are positive moves," he said.

'No place for violence'

But Mohammed al-Tajir, a human rights lawyer representing some of the detainees, said he was not sure that the release of prisoners would be enough to satisfy protesters.

"We are not sure even about the number of the released detainees. We are expecting that more than 600 defendants were in jail and only some of these have been released since last night, including the 23 Shia activists," he told Al Jazeera

He said up to 200 may have been released since Tuesday night, and that those freed were political prisoners or "clerics who are normally active in political or human rights issues".

Shias account for about 70 per cent of the population, but are a minority in Bahrain's 40-seat parliament.

The United States on Tuesday welcomed the state's announcement that it would begin releasing prisoners and permit peaceful demonstrations.

"We commend the steps taken by King Hamad as well as Crown Prince Salman and others to restore calm to Bahrain, to allow peaceful demonstrations to take place," PJ Crowley, the state department spokesman, said.

Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, added that the "steps need to be followed by concrete actions and reform".

"There is no place for violence against peaceful protesters."

But opposition groups are still waiting for the al-Khalifa family, which has ruled Bahrain for 200 years, to accept the principle of a constitutional monarchy before agreeing to enter into dialogue.

"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."

Earlier on Tuesday, tens of thousands of people descended upon Pearl Roundabout in Manama, the capital, calling for the government's downfall, in the biggest rally in more than a week of protests.

A total of seven people have been killed and hundreds wounded in the country's worst unrest since the 1990s.

Source:
Al Jazeera and agencies
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