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Authorities free political prisoners in gesture to protesters

Protesters throw a prisoner pardoned by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa into the air, after he was released from police custody, at Pearl Square in Manama on 23 February
Protesters throw a prisoner pardoned by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa into the air, after he was released from police custody, at Pearl Square in Manama on 23 February

REUTERS/STR New

In a major concession to protesters, 23 high-profile activists and bloggers who had been accused of plotting to overthrow the government have been released, along with dozens of other political prisoners, report the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and news reports.

BCHR, which has been campaigning tirelessly since August for the detainees, including bloggers Abdul-Jalil Al-Singace and Ali Abdulemam, and BCHR board member Mohamed Said, confirmed their 23 February release. King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa pardoned them and other political prisoners on 22 February.

BCHR welcomed the news, but called for accountability: "It is important to note that these prisoners were tortured… and allegations were made against them." BCHR and other IFEX members have been following the trials of the prisoners and documenting evidence that they were tortured, some into making false confessions against each other.

Plus, BCHR tweeted, "About 100 political prisoners had been freed but another 400 or so are still held."

Their release came the same day as around 200,000 men, women and children packed into the Pearl roundabout in the largest ever pro-democracy protest in Bahrain. The island, about the size of New York City, has about 600,000 citizens. Some of the released prisoners went directly from jail to Pearl Square, where several were hoisted by a jubilant crowd.

According to BCHR, the authorities have been scrambling to calm an uprising that grows bigger as it enters its second week. On 19 February, the government conceded to opposition demands and withdrew tanks and police from the streets, allowing citizens to protest freely. So unlike protests last week, no security forces interfered with the march, although a government helicopter hovered overhead.

News reports say that King Hamad has named the Crown Prince to lead a national dialogue with the opposition. Demonstrators told reporters that the prisoners' release was a sign the government was listening. But they insisted they wouldn't stop protesting until their main demands are met: 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 the majority Shi'ites.

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