Bahrain vows to stop cases against athletes

Reuters , Thursday 8 Dec 2011

Prosecution of athletes who took part in anti-regime protests should halt as Bahrain shelves cases in an effort to secure US arms deal

Anti-government protesters pass a graffiti-covered wall that reads: "Peaceful Bahrain" and "We will never forget the prisoners in jails" at a rally and march, November, (Photo: AP).

Bahrain, under pressure to improve its right record to secure a purchase of US arms, has pledged to stop prosecuting athletes over their participation in pro-democracy demonstrations crushed by the government earlier this year.

The official BNA news agency said late on Wednesday that public prosecutors had ordered a halt to cases "concerning athletes who took part in the events of February and March 2011, and accused of taking part in marches, rallies and inciting hatred for the system of government".

BNA did not identify any of the sports figures affected.

Last week a military court sentenced a bodybuilder, a footballer and a basketball player - all members of the majority Shi'ite Muslim community who had represented Bahrain internationally - to a year in prison for joining the unrest.

Lawyer Mohsen Al-Alawi said 64 athletes in total faced legal action, with most of the cases under way. He said the decision to halt the cases meant convictions already issued still stood and all charges could be reactivated in the future.

"The charges have not been abrogated, the prosecution has simply asked for the cases to be halted," he said.

Inspired by revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, thousands of mainly Shi'ite Bahrainis took to the streets in February and March demanding political change to limit the power of the ruling Sunni Muslim Al-Khalifa family.

The protest wave was forcibly put down with the help of military forces brought in from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Bahrain hosts the US Fifth Fleet.

Washington has said a pending $53 million arms sale to Bahrain will hinge partly on the monarchy halting the abuses inflicted on protesters outlined in a report by a government-appointed fact-finding commission of international lawyers.

The panel reported last month that 3,000 people were detained, over 4,000 lost their jobs, and hundreds were maltreated in detention, subjected to sexual abuse, sodomy with objects and electric shocks.

The BNA report said the decision to shelve prosecutions of athletes was based on King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa's call to "rise above those who had done wrong".

Similar charges have led to convictions in other cases, and the BNA report said prosecutors would continue with the trial of teachers accused of taking part in the protests.

Bahrain has hired US and British police chiefs to lead reform efforts within security agencies and established a committee to look into the commission's recommendations.

But there has been no progress in talks between the government and opposition groups on political reforms and the Gulf Arab island state remains tense, with daily clashes between riot police and protesters.

There were clashes on Wednesday, the final day of the Shi'ite mourning ceremony of Ashura, after a Shi'ite woman died from wounds sustained last month during one such disturbance. Police and opposition activists blamed each other for the death.

The Interior Ministry said on Wednesday it had destroyed a suspicious package containing materials that could have been used to make a bomb and that was sent via Dubai from Britain. A bomb went off outside the British embassy on Sunday.

Bahrain has found itself in the eye of regional conflict between Iran and the United States and its ally Saudi Arabia. Bahrain accused Shi'ites of leading the protests with sectarian motives and support from Iran.

The inquiry found no evidence of an Iranian role in the protests in Bahrain, which still maintains that the Shi'ite giant on the opposite side of the Gulf influenced events there and practices incitement through the media.

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