Bahraini releases political prisoners amid protests


Bahraini opposition lawmakers say authorities have released 23 Shi’ite activists who had been on trial since October for plotting against the Gulf state’s minority Sunni rulers.

The lawmakers confirmed the release of the Bahraini detainees Wednesday. King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa pardoned them and other political prisoners Tuesday, in a gesture toward opposition activists who have held more than a week of anti-government protests.

More than 100,000 people marched in the capital Manama Tuesday, in what organizers called the largest-ever pro-democracy demonstration in the majority-Shi’ite island nation of only 500,000 citizens.

Flag-waving men, women and children circled the city’s financial district and the Bahrain Mall, demanding the resignation of the government and democratic reforms to establish what they call a real constitutional monarchy. Some prisoners released Tuesday went directly from jail to Manama’s Pearl Square, where several were hoisted by a jubilant crowd.

King Hamad also pardoned two Shi’ite activists who were being tried in absentia for the alleged plot against the monarchy. One of them, Hassan Meshaima, has been in self-imposed exile in London since last year. His supporters said his return to Bahrain was imminent.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised Bahrain’s king and crown prince Tuesday for releasing the prisoners, permitting peaceful demonstrations and offering talks with opposition groups. She said such steps “will need to be followed by concrete actions and reforms.”

King Hamad has named Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa to lead a dialogue with the opposition. But, opposition parties and protesters say they will not talk until the government commits to democratic reforms that would strip the Sunni monarchy of its powers and end what they say is long-standing discrimination against majority Shi’ites.