Middle East

Two jailed activists released in Bahrain

Fadheela al-Mubarak after her release (6 February 2012)
Image caption Fadheela al-Mubarak appeared before a crowd in Manama hours after being released from jail

The authorities in Bahrain have freed two imprisoned human rights activists.

They were imprisoned last year for supporting the pro-democracy movement in the tiny Gulf island kingdom.

Fadheela al-Mubarak was freed on Monday, nearly a year after she was arrested for listening to what was called "revolutionary music" in a car.

The other activist was Naser al-Raas, a Kuwait-born Canadian citizen who was serving a five-year term for breaking Bahrain's illegal-assembly laws.

The releases come as the government continues to struggle to quell the pro-democracy protests which erupted on 14 February 2011, despite a crackdown by security forces that human rights groups say has left at least 60 civilians dead. Four police officers have also been killed.

Hundreds more people in Bahrain have been injured and thousands were summarily dismissed from their jobs.

Prominent politicians, religious leaders and human rights advocates have received sentences from military courts ranging from five years to life, on charges which international observers say are without any merit.

Most of the imprisoned, dead and injured are from the majority Shia Muslim community, which has long complained of discrimination at the hands of the Sunni royal family, the Al Khalifa.

Image caption King Hamad Bin Isa al-Khalifa has attempted to address some of the protesters' demands

Funeral protests

Last month, King Hamad Bin Isa al-Khalifa attempted to address some of the protesters' demands by announcing constitutional reforms intended to lead to greater accountability.

He also ordered the rebuilding of Shia mosques demolished by the government and the reinstatement of those who had lost their jobs, and appointed two distinguished British lawyers to overhaul Bahrain's judicial system.

But the harsh tactics which continue to be employed by security forces appear to have undercut the king's efforts.

Amnesty International says that in recent weeks the "inappropriate use of tear gas" has contributed to the deaths of several protesters. It is being fired into enclosed areas and homes, the human rights group alleges.

Two men also died under disputed circumstances in separate incidents last month.

The interior ministry said one of the deaths was the result of drowning, and that the other was due to natural causes.

However, the BBC has seen photographs of both of the deceased, which appear to confirm their families' allegations that they were tortured after being picked up by security forces.

Image caption Angry protests followed the funerals of two men allegedly tortured by police

The government refused the families' requests for independent post-mortem examinations.

Angry protests in villages on the outskirts of the capital, Manama, followed the funerals of the two men. Later, demonstrators hurled Molotov cocktails at police, who responded by firing tear gas and stun grenades.

More than 40 police officers have been injured at least two critically.

'Freedom Square'

And with unrest continuing in Shia villages, activists have taken to marching in the heart of Manama, in what they say is an attempt to reclaim the city a year after protesters first occupied Pearl Roundabout in a bid to emulate Egyptians in Cairo's Tahrir Square.

Three people died when Pearl Roundabout was forcibly cleared on 17 February. The government subsequently demolished the large Pearl Monument that had towered over the roundabout. It remains sealed off.

But veteran human rights activist Nabeel Rajab says he will lead a march on 14 February to reclaim Pearl Roundabout.

"It belongs to the people as their symbol of the fight for freedom. We will take it back peacefully."

The government response has been to allow the island's political societies to sponsor rallies that are now drawing thousands.

That is an acknowledgement that as the uprising's first anniversary approaches, officials are growing nervous about how to contain protests without drawing international condemnation.

Image caption On Monday night, a crowd said to be 10,000-strong gathered in Manama

One activist told the BBC: "It's a safety valve for the regime. It's clever."

Then she laughed and said: "They are clever and stupid at the same time."

Indeed, the decision to allow protests at what activists are now calling "Freedom Square", just a few kilometres from Pearl Roundabout, may yet backfire.

On Monday night, a crowd said to be 10,000-strong cheered on an unrepentant Fadheela al-Mubarak at a rally there to celebrate her release.