Bahrain: King pardons political prisoners-NY Times

April 14, 2009

[FACT comments: Sound familiar? Why does it take kings to bring repressive governments to heel?]

Bahrain King Pardons Shiite Political Prisoners
Mona el-Naggar
The New York Times: April 12, 2009

The king of Bahrain has pardoned 178 Bahraini detainees charged with security offenses, including two prominent Shiite opposition leaders whose arrest set off regular protests that often ended in violent clashes between Shiite demonstrators and the police.

Under the royal pardon, issued Saturday, the release of the detainees, all Shiites, began Sunday.

Bahrain, a relatively small country of about one million residents, is located between Saudi Arabia and Iran and has a majority Shiite population ruled by Sunni leadership.

“This comes as an embodiment of his majesty’s sound vision and his method of sensible rule in the framework of his majesty’s reform project, which firmly establishes the principles of justice, equality and transparency,” said a statement on the Bahrain News Agency Web site, announcing the pardon issued by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa.

Shiites in Bahrain complain that they are discriminated against and are politically repressed by the ruling Sunni elite. Young Shiite men, who have taken to the streets almost daily, burning tires as a show of defiance, say that they are not offered equal opportunities in education and employment and that the government is changing the demographic composition of the population by naturalizing as many Sunnis as possible. Bahraini officials say that is not true and deny there is any intention to meddle with the nation’s demographic balance.

“The whole village is celebrating the release of its sons, but our demands were not limited to their release,” Salman Hassan, a 20-year-old from Malkiya, a Shiite village outside the capital of Manama, said as he waited to greet four neighbors and friends after their release on Sunday. “They make the pardon sound like a noble act so that they can stop people from making their demands.”

The two prominent Shiite figures pardoned Saturday, Hassan Mushaima’a, leader of the Haq opposition movement, and the cleric Sheikh Mohammed Habib al-Moqdad, had been accused, along with 21 other opposition organizers, of trying to destabilize the government and planning terrorist attacks. Their arrest this year caused an uproar among their Shiite followers and intensified the demonstrations.

While the pardon is expected to ease some of the anger within Shiite communities in Bahrain, it does not address underlying sectarian issues, which led to the arrests in the first place.

“The question now is, will this pardon end the political and human rights crisis that this country suffers?” said Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, who added that he believed the pardon was designed to contain the situation and bring stability at a time of economic crisis by improving the government’s image abroad. “If it is not followed with real political solutions, then the problem will return once again.”

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