The ruler of Bahrain, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, has pardoned 178 prisoners in an attempt to defuse political and sectarian tensions in the kingdom, which has endured months of violent disturbances. Recent weeks have seen almost daily anti-government protests by members of the island’s majority Shia community, who claim discrimination by the Sunni ruling elite.
Those pardoned and released on Sunday evening include Hassan Mushaima, leader of the opposition Haq movement, and Mohammed al-Moqdad, a Shia cleric. Both men appeared in court in February along with 19 others on charges of inciting violence and plotting to overthrow the state.
The trial provoked a surge in violence which left at least one person dead. A Pakistani worker, Shaikh Mohammed Riyadh, was killed when his truck was firebombed on its way through the Shia village of Maameer. The amnesty will not apply to those arrested in connection with the murder, said government officials.
“The reason for the amnesty is to start a new era in which people are willing to pursue peaceful expressions of their thoughts and adhere to the law,” Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani, Bahrain’s chief of public security, told the Financial Times. “We have no problem with people who protest peacefully and let the police know where and when they plan to demonstrate. The whole reform process is being carried out on the understanding that there already is a wider amnesty in place.”
A similar royal pardon of political prisoners kicked off a series of reforms in the late 1990s, after a period of civil unrest in which at least 35 people died. Yet opposition politicians say the pace of political reform has slowed in recent years. Instead, the government has concentrated on reforming its economy in an attempt to create more jobs and improve access to social housing – two of the biggest grievances among poorer sections of the island’s Shia population.
Clashes between Shia protesters and government security forces in recent weeks have led to an apparent escalation in sectarian violence. Sunni supporters of the government accuse the government of Iran of stoking unrest in the Shia community. The house of Shaikh Hussain al-Daihi, head of the opposition Al Wefaq National Islamic Society and one of the island’s most prominent Shia leaders, was set alight by masked men on Friday night.
Opposition politicians, for their part, accuse the authorities of heavy-handedness. Human rights activists are preparing evidence for an international tribunal into claims of torture and other abuses by Bahraini security services since December 2007. Two teams of lawyers are being convened in Europe and the US to represent the claims, the Haq party’s head of human rights, Abduljalil al-Singace, told the FT.