Bahrain says to drop free-speech cases after protests

DUBAI Sat Dec 24, 2011 1:51pm EST

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DUBAI (Reuters) - Bahrain said on Saturday it would drop charges against 343 people whose offences were linked to free speech, but the opposition said that was just a portion of those detained on such accusations during pro-democracy protests this year.

The Sunni-led Gulf kingdom, under pressure to improve its rights record to secure a U.S. arms deal, has said it would follow the recommendations of a state-appointed commission which found evidence of widespread abuse in the crackdown against the protests by majority Shi'ite Muslims.

The measure, part of a review of action by military courts set up after Bahrain announced martial law in March, applies to 43 cases and 343 defendants, public prosecutor Ali al-Buainain told the state news agency BNA.

"However, other cases will remain pending because they involve crimes of violence and sabotage against people and property," Buainain said.

An official at the largest Shi'ite opposition group, Wefaq, said about 85 percent of the cases it studied were linked to freedom of speech and assembly.

"Of the 1,200 cases we have reported about, 1,000 include charges such as illegal assembly, spreading false news and spreading hatred of the regime," Matar Matar, a former parliament member for Wefaq, told Reuters.

Matar also said the measure should allow those charged to seek compensation.

"These people were imprisoned and there was no justification for what happened to them. So there should be compensation and an investigation of those responsible," Matar said by telephone.

Bahrain is important to Western interests in the Middle East because it hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet and faces Shi'ite giant Iran on the other side of the Gulf. Iran has denied Bahraini government accusations that it had incited the protests.

Inspired by "Arab Spring" uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, thousands of mainly Shi'ite Bahrainis took to the streets in February and March demanding curbs on the power of the ruling Al-Khalifa family and an end to perceived discrimination.

The broader pro-democracy movement was suppressed with the help of military forces brought in from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. But small, low-level protests have persisted on an almost daily basis.

(Reporting by Firouz Sedarat; Editing by Myra MacDonald)

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