Bahrain promises media freedoms

Bahrain’s leaders promised Sunday to expand media
freedoms in another apparent attempt to quell plans for the first major
anti-government protests in the Gulf since the uprising in Egypt.

The tiny kingdom of Bahrain is among the most politically
volatile in the Gulf and holds important strategic value for the West as the
home as the US Navy’s 5th Fleet. Bahrain’s majority Shiites have long
complained of discrimination by the ruling Sunni dynasty, whose crackdown on
dissent last year touched off riots and clashes.

Shiite-led opposition groups and others have joined calls
for demonstrations on Monday — the anniversary of Bahrain’s 2002 constitution that brought some pro-democracy reforms
such as an elected parliament.

Security forces were
deployed in malls and other key spots around Bahrain on Sunday in a clear
warning against holding the rallies, but a prominent human rights activist
predicted “chaos and bloodshed” if attempts are made to crush the planned
demonstrations.

Bahrain’s leaders,
meanwhile, have stepped in with concessions to try to defuse the protests.

Government media
monitors began talks Sunday with publishers and others to draft new rules to
limit state controls. The official Bahrain News Agency, meanwhile, launched a
new multimedia service that includes social media applications to seek more
outreach.

It’s unclear, however,
whether activists and rights groups will be satisfied with the proposed changes
after facing widespread blocks on websites and blogs.

Last week, Bahrain’s
king, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, granted each Bahraini family the equivalent of
nearly $2,700 in an apparent bid to calm tensions.

But the demands go
deeper than economics.

In an open letter to the
king, the independent Bahrain Center for Human Rights called for wide-ranging
reforms to avoid a “worst-case scenario,” including dismantling the security
forces, prosecution of state officials for abuses and the release of 450 jailed
activists, religious leaders and others.

The rights center’s
president, Nabeel Rajab, urged the king to “avoid the fatal mistake committed
by similar regimes in Tunisia and Egypt” and not try to crush planned protests
Monday. He warned further pressures by authorities could push the country into
“chaos or bloodshed.”

On Friday, hundreds of
Bahrainis and Egyptian nationals went out in the streets chanting and dancing
near the Egyptian Embassy in the capital Manama moments after Hosni Mubarak
stepped down as president. Bahraini authorities quickly set up roadblocks to
contain the crowds.

The chances for confrontation
in Bahrain have been further elevated by the ongoing trial of 25 Shiite
activists — including two charged in absentia — accused of plotting against the
state. The detainees have alleged police torture and being made to sign forced
confessions, but the court has moved ahead with the proceedings. The next
session is scheduled for 24 February.

Bahrain’s Al Wasat
newspaper reported Sunday that one of the suspects had a heart attack while in
custody and was hospitalised.

Opposition groups in
Kuwait had called for an anti-government protests last week, but shifted the
date to March 8 after the resignation of the country’s scandal-tainted
interior minister.

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