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Syria aims to ease unrest with release of detained protesters

Associated Press / April 15, 2011

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BEIRUT — Syria’s president ordered the release yesterday of hundreds of detainees involved in a month of protests seeking to wrest political freedoms from one of the Middle East’s most repressive governments.

The order, announced by state TV, signaled an attempt by President Bashar Assad to calm weeks of growing protester anger and preempt what is expected to be another day of large demonstrations today.

Protests erupted in Syria a month ago and have steadily increased, with tens of thousands calling for sweeping political reforms from Assad’s authoritarian regime. More than 200 people have been killed in the government’s crackdown, according to Syria’s leading prodemocracy group.

The state TV announcement did not say how many protesters would be released or how many were being held. It said the release order did not apply to those involved in “criminal acts’’ but that most of those taken into custody would be freed.

The country’s new prime minister, meanwhile, revealed his Cabinet two weeks after Assad fired the previous government in an earlier gesture that failed to contain the unrest.

Violence continued yesterday in a major port city where the government has waged a crackdown on several days of protests.

The state-run SANA news agency reported that snipers fired on a Syrian military patrol in Banias, killing one soldier and wounding another.

Syria’s government and its state-run media have sought to cast the unrest as a foreign conspiracy perpetrated by armed gangs targeting security forces and civilians. Reform activists, however, say their movement is peaceful.

Egypt CAIRO — Egypt’s military rulers said yesterday that they were reviewing cases of young protesters jailed in the aftermath of the popular uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak and that they also sacked several provincial governors appointed by the former president.

The moves were intended to defuse tensions between the military, which took control of Egypt after Mubarak’s ouster, and the protesters determined to keep up the pressure and demand for sweeping reforms.

The Armed Forces’ Supreme Council — the body of top generals that took over after Mubarak’s ouster on Feb. 11 — said in a statement posted on its Facebook page that cases of the young people recently put on trial will be reconsidered.

Activists complain the military has been acting in ways reminiscent of Mubarak’s regime, detaining scores of people and putting protesters in military prisons, where some were reportedly tortured, or on swift trial before military courts.

This week, a military tribunal slapped a three-year prison term on a blogger for charges of insulting the army and spreading false information, further antagonizing the protest movement.

Many Egyptians say the generals are heavy-handedly dictating the course of Egypt’s transition and that they are not doing enough to ensure that remnants of Mubarak’s regime don’t retain power and thwart hopes for real democracy.

The tensions came to a peak on Saturday, when troops stormed Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the 18-day uprising, killing at least one protester and arresting dozens in a predawn operation.

Bahrain MANAMA — Bahrain’s government yesterday ordered the country’s biggest Shi’ite party to be dismantled for “threatening peace’’ in the Gulf kingdom after weeks of Shi’ite-led protests against the Sunni rulers.

The decision against the Al Wefaq party is part of Bahrain’s wide-ranging crackdown on the opposition after government forces crushed a wave of demonstrations by the island nation’s Shi’ite majority demanding equal rights and a constitutional monarchy with an elected government.

Al Wefaq has been the leading political backer of the uprising in this tiny but strategically key Persian Gulf country, home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet. The protesters marched on financial institutions and royal palaces and occupied a main square in the capital Manama for a month during the unprecedented unrest against the country’s minority Sunni rulers.

Justice Minister Khaled bin Ali Al Khalifa said in a statement that a smaller Shi’ite party, Al Amal, had also been ordered disbanded.

The orders still require approval by the courts, which are to review the case within a month, he said. Approval seems likely because judges on Bahrain’s courts are appointed by the king.

The moves are likely to further anger and frustrate Shi’ites, whose bitterness has only grown since troops crushed the protests in Manama’s Pearl Square on March 16.

Bahrain declared martial law to quash the protests and has detained opposition leaders, hundreds of protesters, and leading human rights activists.

Earlier this week, authorities also accused Bahrain’s main opposition newspaper of threatening national security. They said three of its former top editors will face trial for publishing “fabricated news’’ and “false pictures.’’

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