Manama, Bahrain, Feb 22: Bahrain's king ordered the release of some political prisoners Tuesday, conceding to another opposition demand as the embattled monarchy tries to engage protesters in talks aimed at ending an uprising that has entered its second week.
The king's decree — which covers several Shiite activists accused of plotting against the state — adds to the brinksmanship on both sides that has included a massive pro-government rally Monday, an opposition march in response and the planned return of a prominent opposition figure from exile.
It's unclear how many prisoners will be freed, government spokeswoman Maysoon Sabkar said.
But they include some of the 25 Shiite activists on trial for allegedly plotting against the Sunni rulers of the strategic island kingdom, a leading member of Bahrain's Shiite opposition, Abdul Jalili Khalil, told The Associated Press.
He called the prisoner release "a good step" and a "positive gesture."
Two of those in the case are being tried in absentia, including opposition leader Hassan Meshaima, who has been in self-exile in London since last year. He was expected to return to Bahrain later Tuesday.
Mesheima's presence could bolster opposition forces seeking a harder line against the monarchy, including some who have called for the complete ouster of the king and the royal dynasty that has ruled for more than 200 years.
Meshaima's group, known as Haq, is considered more radical than the main Shiite political bloc that has taken a central role in the revolt, which began last week with marches but quickly met with violent resistance from security forces.
The primary Shiite group includes 18 members of the 40-member parliament, who resigned Thursday to protest the killing of demonstrators by security forces.
Tens of thousands of opposition supporters marched Tuesday through the capital of Manama, carrying Bahrain's red-and-white flag and circling the Bahrain Mall and Manama's financial district — symbols of the country's prosperity in recent decades. Security forces did not move to confront the procession, but helicopters circled overhead.
"Egypt, Tunisia, are we any different?" they chanted, calling for the Sunni rulers they accuse of discriminating against the island's Shiite majority to fall.
"I don't care if it is this government or another, but whichever it is, I want my rights," said Wassam Zabar, a 22-year-old student. "I want a chance to have a job, a career and a future."
The government said Tuesday that the overall death toll was seven from last week's clashes, which included the army opening fire on protesters. Previous reports from opposition groups and hospital officials in the past week set the death toll at eight, but the government tally now appears accurate.
The government said 25 people were hospitalized, but it's unclear what degree of injury authorities used to arrive at that figure. Opposition group place the figure at more that 200. Associated Press journalists at the main state hospital witnessed many dozens of people being treated.
The attacks on protesters have brought stinging denunciations from Bahrain's Western allies, including the United States. The U.S. maintains very close ties with Bahrain, which hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.
Bahrain authorities withdrew the military Saturday and allowed protesters to reclaim the landmark Pearl Square, which has been the center of the Shiite-led uprising.
Bahrain's Shiite majority has complained of discrimination and political persecution in the kingdom. They have staged protests in the past, but the current unrest — inspired by the toppling of regimes in Tunisia and Egypt — is the most serious against the Sunni rulers.
In a brief statement to Bahrain's official news agency, the king ordered the release of "a number of prisoners" and a halt to "several trials" of Shiite activists.
On Monday, Bahrain's crown prince called off Formula One's season-opening race scheduled for March 13, handing another victory to protesters. Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa owns the rights to grand prix and serves as commander of the armed forces. Protesters said it would have been disrespectful the hold the race.
Sabkar told reporters the "immediate priority is to keep the peace and maintain calm." She said the government, led by the same prime minister — the king's uncle — for 40 years, was "deeply saddened by the tragic events of the past few days and its condolences go out to those families who have lost loved ones."
Opposition leaders have called for the government to resign after last week's bloodshed to pave the way for a dialogue with the crown prince.
"The government has taken a decision to shoot at its people," said Khalil, a Shiite opposition leader. "Our objective remains for this government to resign after failing to protect its people." AP