Last Updated: Wed Feb 23, 2011 12:33 pm (KSA) 09:33 am (GMT)

Bahrain frees activists, pardons opposition leader

A Bahraini protester holds a giant Bahraini flag displayed at Pearl Square in Manama
A Bahraini protester holds a giant Bahraini flag displayed at Pearl Square in Manama

Bahraini authorities have released 23 Shiite activists held on terrorism counts and pardoned two others abroad including opposition leader Hassan Mashaima, an MP said Wednesday, as the United States welcomed peacemaking moves by Bahrain's monarchy.

"The 23 have been released," MP Jassem Hussein, a member of the opposition Islamic National Accord Association which controls the largest bloc in the 40-strong parliament, told AFP.

The 25 men in October were charged with forming an illegal organization, engaging in and financing terrorism and spreading false and misleading information.

The two tried in absentia were Freedom Islamic Movement secretary general Said al-Shihabi and Mashaima, the leader of the opposition Haq movement who was expected to return to Manama on Tuesday but did not.

Shihabi lives in London as does Mashaima, who was in Britain on a trip for medical treatment when the charges were brought against the group.

Shiite cleric Mohammed al-Moqdad and Abduljalil al-Singace, another Haq leader who is partially paralyzed, were among those held over the charges.

Moqdad has complained of brutal treatment in prison.

Their release follows a pardon announced by King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa in response to demands by protesters who are pushing for a "real" constitutional monarchy.

Bahraini authorities have called for national dialogue to find a way out of the deadlock.

Mashaima told AFP before King Hamad's pardon that he would return to Manama but had "no guarantees" he would not be arrested on arrival.

"I have decided to return to my country," said Mashaima, a Shiite who is currently in London.

The U.S. State Department, meanwhile, said it commended steps taken by King Hamad and Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad in restoring calm and allowing peaceful demonstrations to take place.

"We view recent announcements to launch a national dialogue and the release of political prisoners as positive steps towards addressing the concerns of Bahraini citizens," State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said.

Bahrain is the home to the US Fifth Fleet headquarters.

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