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King pardons hundreds of activists following international outcry


Bahrain's king has pardoned 178 people charged with breaching state security, including 35 Shi'ite activists whose arrests sparked violent protests and whose case drew international scrutiny, reports the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR).

According to news sources, the Interior Ministry announced the amnesty last weekend. A government official later said those pardoned included 35 Shi'ite activists who have been on trial since February accused of attempting to overthrow the state.

Among the 35 were Hassan Mushaima, leader of the mainly Shi'ite opposition movement Haq, Haq spokesperson Abdeljalil Alsingace, and Shi'ite cleric Mohammed al-Maqdad.

More than 1,500 Bahrainis staged protests in February demanding their release and rights groups complained that their trial was flawed.

Prominent rights campaigner Abdul Hadi al-Khawaja, former president of BCHR, has also been pardoned. He was accused last year of "inciting hatred against the regime and spreading rumours to disrupt security", stemming from a speech he made that was critical of the government.

Nabeel Rajab, head of BCHR, who monitored al-Khawaja's trial on behalf of Human Rights Watch, told Reuters that the pardon followed unprecedented international pressure on Bahrain, whose government had underestimated the degree of popular opposition to the arrests.

"This will help ease the tension for the coming weeks," Rajab said. "But if this is not followed by measures to end the... political and human rights crisis, which is the discrimination against the (Shi'ites), (this kind of) situation will come back."

BCHR is demanding an independent investigation into the arrest campaign, trials and charges brought against those responsible for the violations, as well as reparations for victims and their families.

BCHR also recommends wider measures, including reforming the terrorism laws and dissolving the National Security Apparatus.

In 1995, Shi'ites led a series of violent protests to demand reforms. The disturbances abated in 1998 after King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa launched landmark political and economic reforms, including pardoning political prisoners and activists in exile.

The Shi'ite opposition has attributed the unrest to grievances such as their marginalisation in jobs and services, a charge government officials deny.

Meanwhile, BCHR also reports that this week the government widened the number of websites and blogs that are currently blocked within the country, including BCHR's website.

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