Bahrain: Royal pardon for 23 jailed, protesters won’t budge

AFP , Wednesday 23 Feb 2011

Bahrain freed 23 people accused of trying to topple the island's Sunni Muslim monarchy, however protesters vow to continue demonstrations and political parties request government resignations

Tens of thousands of Bahraini anti-government protesters (Photo: AP)

Bahrain protesters vowed Wednesday not to budge from Pearl Square, epicentre of anti-regime demonstrations, despite the release of leading Shiite opposition activists and renewed calls by the king for talks.

"Even if they put the gun in my mouth and order me to leave, I will not," said Sabah Abadi, a retired municipal employee who sat in a tent with his son and friends in the square. "I'm here day and night."

One day after a massive protest clogged the main roads of Manama, Shiite demonstrators again crowded into Pearl Square Wednesday, chanting: "We are brothers, Sunnis and Shiites. We shall not abandon this country."

"We shall never be humiliated," shouted one woman, evoking a traditional Shiite slogan that blared out of megaphones across the square.

The protesters, who have relentlessly hit the streets on a daily basis since February 14, have renamed Pearl Square "Martyrs' Roundabout" to honour the victims of a deadly police raid early last Thursday.

"Our most important demand is that the killers be put on trial," said Omran Baba, 27, who is unemployed. "That was criminal."

"Even if we die, that won't be a problem," added Zuhair Hassan, 29 who abandoned his job as a driver and joined the sit-in.

"I am fighting for the sake of my homeland."

Security forces have been ordered to stay away from protesters, many of whom are demanding the end of the Sunni Al-Khalifa dynasty, which has ruled the tiny kingdom unchallenged for some 200 years.

Embattled King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa, who was in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, has renewed an appeal for dialogue, as 23 Shiite activists were released from prison following a royal pardon.

King Hamad said the decision to free the prisoners came in response to the pleas voiced during a mass pro-government rally on Monday.

The royal pardon also includes Freedom Islamic Movement secretary general Said al-Shihabi, who lives in London along with Hassan Mashaima, leader of the opposition Haq movement. The two were being tried in absentia.

Mashaima was expected to return to Manama on Tuesday but did not.

Haq is a radical Shiite group which refused to end its boycott of elections, unlike the Islamic National Accord Association, the country's main Shiite group which took part in a 2006 vote and controls 18 of the 40 parliamentary seats.

The 18-strong bloc has quit parliament in protest at Thursday's killings.

Official opposition groups have stopped short of demanding the fall of the regime, instead requesting the resignation of the government, the implementation of reforms and the creation of a "real constitutional monarchy."

The opposition has also demanded an "impartial" probe to identify those behind the killing of seven protesters so far by police and has requested the formation of a "national salvation" government.

Leading Shiite clerics have called for more demonstrations on Friday to "mourn the martyrs," urging protesters to again march to Pearl Square.

Gulf powerhouse Saudi Arabia has thrown its weight behind its tiny neighbour and rejected foreign "meddling" in Bahraini internal affairs.

The United States, which headquarters its Fifth Fleet in Manama, has meanwhile expressed content with Bahraini officials' move to start dialogue.

Washington had previously condemned the use of violence by its ally Bahrain against anti-regime protesters.

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