Top opposition leaders among more than 100 prisoners freed by Bahrain

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MANAMA, BahrainBahrain on Sunday released more than 100 prisoners, including two former opposition members of parliament, arrested during the Sunni government’s crackdown on the predominantly Shiite protests inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.

The mass release comes after the freeing last month of 41 prisoners. The Sunday release included Jawad Fairoz and Mattar Mattar, members of Bahrain’s Wefaq opposition bloc that won 18 out of 40 seats in last years parliamentary elections.

The delegation resigned en masse in February to protest the killing of protesters by security forces. Mid-term elections for their open seats are scheduled for next month.

However, one of the leading former lawmakers, Khalil Marzooq, told The Washington Times there is “no chance” now that Wefaq would contest the elections, given the government’s refusal to meet their demands on reform.

Sunday’s release came at the behest of Cherif Bassiouni, the Egyptian-American war-crimes prosecutor appointed last month by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa to chair an independent inquiry into human rights abuses that took place during the recent unrest. He said his team, which includes four other renowned international figures, is investigating 35 deaths, close to 400 injuries and 1,400 arrests.

In a phone interview Saturday night, Mr. Bassiouni said the king had ordered these particular detainees transferred from the custody of the military prosecutor-general to civilian courts upon his request.

“To me, theyre all human beings, and if theyre in prison arbitrarily, then Im going to try to get them out,” he said.

U.S. officials have publicly urged the release of prisoners arrested during the protests. Bahrain, a strong U.S. ally, is home to the Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which patrols Arab seas and East African waters.

Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, said that the freeing of prisoners would “ease the tension” but would not solve the political problems that underlie Bahrains political crisis.

“The release of the prisoners is one step of repairing the damage that has been done in the past four to five months - a step that needs to be followed by many steps,” he said.

The human rights commission estimates that about 600 “prisoners of conscience” still remain behind bars.

King Hamad ordered a similar mass release of prisoners in late February, as a gesture to protesters who had occupied the capital’s main square.

Many were arrested again in March when the government invited in troops from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries to put down the protests.

Fatima Al-Baluchi, Bahrains minister of human rights and social development, said in an interview that the government had “zero tolerance for any violation of human rights” and would investigate all credible claims.

“We are a country of law,” she said.

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

About the Author

Ben Birnbaum

Ben Birnbaum is a reporter covering foreign affairs for The Washington Times. Prior to joining The Times, Birnbaum worked as a reporter-researcher at the New Republic. A Boston-area native, he graduated magna cum laude from Cornell University with a degree in government and psychology. He won multiple collegiate journalism awards for his articles and columns in the Cornell Daily Sun.

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