Feb 22, 2008

MANAMA (AFP) — Around 2,500 Bahrainis took to the streets on Friday to demand the release of activists held over bloody clashes in Shiite-populated areas and who were allegedly tortured in custody.

Riot police deployed in force in the eastern Ras al-Ruman district of the capital Manama and closed off roads as the protesters chanted slogans calling for the detainees' release and the resignation of the government.

The marchers were led by opposition activists who organised the protest.

They included Hassan al-Mushaimee, secretary general of Haq, or Movement of Liberties and Democracy, a mainly Shiite group; and Ibrahim Sharif, secretary general of the National Democratic Action Association (NDAA), an alliance of leftists, pan-Arab nationalists and independents.

A statement distributed during the protest said about 50 people, mostly rights and political activists, were rounded up after the clashes between protesters and security forces last December.

It called for a halt to the trials of 18 activists still in custody and for their "immediate release."

The march was also staged "in protest at reports by Bahraini and international sides about the abuses of the detainees' legal and human rights, including... psychological and physical torture and sexual assault," the statement said.

It demanded an independent probe into the December clashes and the prosecution of officials responsible for purported abuses by security forces in quelling the unrest.

Human Rights Watch last week called on the Bahraini government to investigate allegations that the detained opposition activists have been repeatedly abused. It was the second time in less than a month that the New York-based watchdog urged such a probe.

Bahraini officials have denied claims that detainees have been tortured or that security forces used excessive force.

The clashes erupted after a protester died following an opposition demonstration. The trial of 15 of those detained in connection with the unrest is due to resume on Sunday.

The Shiite majority in Sunni-ruled Bahrain has been campaigning for compensation for alleged human rights violations during the 1980s and 1990s.

At least 38 people died in Shiite-led protests in the Gulf archipelago, a close US ally, between 1994 and 1999.