Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Bahrain releases dozens of political prisoners

Fifteen-year-old Muhammed Ramadhan is tossed in the air inside Pearl Roundabout Tuesday after the Bahraini government began releasing political prisoners.
Jesse McLean Staff Reporter

MANAMA, BAHRAIN—Bahrain’s king ordered the release of dozens of political prisoners Tuesday, conceding yet another demand from demonstrators as the embattled monarchy scrambles to calm an uprising that grows bigger as it enters its second week.
A stream of freed prisoners — many of them young, gaunt and unshaven — arrived directly from jail at Pearl Square shortly after midnight, where several were hoisted by the jubilant crowd.
“I was so scared I would not get out,” said Ali Ahmed Radhi.
The 21-year-old has been in jail since Sept. 12, when police raided his family’s home at 2 a.m. and accused him of helping others set fires in the streets.
He is thin and his face is buried beneath an unmanaged beard, but he remained defiant in his anti-government stance.
“I will stay in the Pearl. I must stay here, for my rights and for the rights of all Bahrainis,” he said.
It’s unclear how many prisoners will be released. By 1 a.m., more than 50 had arrived at the Pearl roundabout. Organizers estimated more than 400 would be freed, including 23 high-profile Shiite activists accused of plotting to overthrow the government.
Their release comes the same day as more than 100,000 protesters, mostly members of the Shiite majority, packed into the roundabout in the largest pro-democracy demonstration the tiny Gulf island has ever seen. The island has only about 550,000 citizens.
The demonstrators — a mix of men, women and children — formed an unbroken ribbon several kilometres long as they marched along the Shaikh Khalifa Bin Salman Highway toward the traffic circle, the ground zero for protests. No security forces interfered with the march, although a government helicopter hovered overhead.
Several of the prisoner’s recounted tales of abuse, in which Bahraini guards electrically shocked them, beat them with sticks and hung them from a stick in a torture method known locally as “the chicken roast.”
Ridha said his original charge was dropped but instead of being released, he was slapped with eight new charges, including assaulting a police officer. His family didn’t see him for more than a month.
“I don’t trust the government. I am innocent but they didn’t care,” he said in Arabic.
He was never tried for any of the charges, he said.
On Saturday, the government conceded to opposition demands and withdrew tanks and police from the streets, allowing citizens to protest freely.
The crown prince has called for a national dialogue with opposition members in hopes of resolving differences, uniting the nation and preserving Bahrain’s monarchy, which has become a target for protesters as the unrest intensified.
Demonstrators inside the roundabout said the prisoners’ release was a sign the government was listening, but insisted they wouldn’t stop protesting until their main demand is met: the regime falls.
“The prisoners are not enough. It’s only part of our demands,” said Mohammed Ali Mohammed, 29. “We want the government out then we want them taken to court.”
“The whole royal family must go.”
The past week’s protests and violent response by the government have tarnished the kingdom’s international reputation and hurt its economy. Authorities cancelled March’s Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix and business insiders say tourism from Saudi Arabia — a major source of income — has been drastically reduced.