MANAMA // Twenty-six Bahrainis, 19 of whom are accused of killing a policeman, and the other seven accused of killing a Pakistani man in two separate incidents of rioting, are due back in court next month after a pardon to secure their release failed to materialise. In April, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, the Bahraini king, pardoned 178 detainees, including three key Shiite opposition figures, arrested on national security charges between late 2007 and February of this year.
The pardon was hailed by opposition and pro-government supporters alike as an opportunity to end the escalating violence on the street and open the path for a national dialogue on key political, economic and social issues that were described as the root cause for that tension. The 26 Bahrainis were expected to be included among those pardoned because the victims' families had agreed to receive compensation for the deaths.
The 19 were accused of killing a policeman of Pakistani origin, working with the Bahraini anti-riot police, in April 2008 in the Shiite village of Karzakan. Their case was in court before being suspended following the pardon. The seven were charged with killing a 58-year-old Pakistani man in the Shiite village of Maamer this year after his vehicle was hit with a Molotov cocktail during a riot. That trial had not started. All the suspects denied the charges and described them as politically motivated. The prosecution insisted the cases were brought about because of criminal actions and not political activity.
Sheikh Ali Salman, a member of parliament and secretary general of the Islamic Shiite opposition group Al Wefaq, described the pardon as turning a new leaf that could lead to serious dialogue and reconciliation. His optimism was shared by many, including Bahrain's interior minister, Lt Gen Sheikh Rashid bin Abdullah bin Ahmad al Khalifa, who announced the pardon, pro-government groups, moderates and the opposition. Al Wefaq, the largest of the opposition groups, had spearheaded efforts to secure the release of the detainees.
This week, however, Sheikh Salman was less optimistic and warned of deterioration in the security situation if the pardon did not go through. "There is still time to secure the release, but there are some officials who are standing in the way of securing a payment to the families to block this pardon," he said during a press conference at Al Wefaq's headquarters on Saturday. He did not name the officials.
He said a compensation agreement with the two families had been reached, but in the last stage of negotiations there was a shift in policies and the ministry of interior ordered the trials to proceed. Sheikh Salman said there were some who continued to seek a "state of crisis" over the two cases - despite an offer by Al Wefaq to compensate the families and after the public prosecutor's office itself had confirmed that the 26 were included in the pardon following talks with the families.
Others, however, point out that even within the opposition some seek to mine the crisis for their political gain. The next parliamentary elections are to be held in November 2010. "Just as there are people in power who stand to benefit from the status quo, there are some in the opposition who stand to benefit from having this pardon not go through as it weakens Al Wefaq's stance among its supporters, or at the very least ensures that it doesn't emerge as the moderate force that can achieve tangible results via negotiations," said a western observer, who requested anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media.
"It's no secret that some in the opposition are eyeing to play a bigger role in next year's elections by cutting into Al Wefaq's share, while others want to see that participation in parliamentary elections fail altogether." Salah Ali, the second deputy speaker of parliament, said the push for national dialogue should not be suspended or delayed under any circumstances - including release of the 26 men. "The need for a national dialogue is more prominent and critical in times of crisis than any other time because it helps diminish the level of political tension on the street," he said in an interview yesterday.
"I call on the opposition to avert the use of the street pressure and violence and to present any legitimate demands on the negotiation table where all sides need to have patience to reach an agreement." Dr Ali emphasised the need for all sides to compromise to reach an acceptable agreement on all issues of contention at the centre of debate in and outside parliament for the past several years, including constitutional reform, naturalisation, wider democratic representation, unemployment, plus land allocation and reclamation.
Despite the relative calm on the streets of Bahrain since the announcement of the pardon, sporadic clashes and violence had hit some villages. The most serious was in April when a car exploded in Daih. One youth was killed and another critically injured. The police described the incident as a failed attempt by the two to transport a home-made bomb. Some in the opposition said activists were being targeted.
All sides, however, seem to agree that with the upcoming trials, tension in the courtrooms could spill on to the streets once again. firstname.lastname@example.org