Prisoners' families hold small protest in Bahrain during pope visit

By Philip Pullella

ISA TOWN, Bahrain (Reuters) -Relatives of death row and life inmates in Bahrain held a small protest along Pope Francis' motorcade route on Saturday calling for freedom of political prisoners in the Gulf Arab state.

It was not clear if the pope saw the placards as his motorcade moved from his residence to a school in Isa Town where he later addressed students and teachers.

A video of the protest, which included several women and children, was posted online by London-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) and by Bahrain's dissolved opposition al-Wefaq group.

One of the placards read "Tolerance, Coexistence is a practice not just slogan. #Free Hassan Mushaima #Free Political Prisoners #End Sectarianism".

Hassan Mushaima, an opposition leader, was given a life sentence in 2011 for anti-government protests, led mostly by the Shi'ite Muslim community. The Sunni monarchy cracked down on the unrest.

On the video, a policeman can be heard telling the demonstrators, who included a small boy: "If you please, if you have demands, if you have anything, not in this way and not in this manner".

A government spokesperson, responding to a request for comment, said that a group of nine individuals were asked to disperse by uniformed police and "acceded to the request".

"No further action is being taken in this regard," the spokesperson said in a statement, adding that there "have been no arrests or apprehensions related to the Papal visit".

Earlier, BIRD said in a statement that the protesters were taken away from the site in a police vehicle and later released.

Before the pope arrived in Bahrain on Thursday, families of death row inmates asked him to speak out against capital punishment and defend political prisoners during the trip.

He did so in his first address on Friday to government authorities and the diplomatic corps.

Bahrain was the only Gulf state to see mass "Arab Spring" upheaval. It has imprisoned thousands - some in mass trials - since the uprising.

The kingdom rejects criticism from the United Nations and others over its conduct of trials and detention conditions, saying it prosecutes in accordance with international law.

Last year, Bahrain conditionally released tens of prisoners under new rules allowing electronic monitoring and home detention instead. Mushaima's son said then that his father had declined a conditional release offer.

(Additional reporting by Ghaida Ghantous in Dubai; Editing by Christina Fincher and Andrew Heavens)