BAGHDAD – Iraqi authorities on Thursday ordered the release of 11 women facing criminal charges and pledged to transfer other women prisoners to jails in their home provinces, in a move to address a main demand during a wave of protests by the country's Sunni minority against the Baghdad government.
The demonstrations erupted following the arrest of bodyguards assigned to Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi, one of the central government's most senior Sunni officials. The protests tap into deeper Sunni feelings of perceived discrimination and unfair application of laws against their sect by Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government.
Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, another high-ranking Sunni official, is living in exile in Turkey after he was handed multiple death sentences in absentia for allegedly running death squads, a charge he dismisses as politically motivated.
Justice Ministry spokesman Haider al-Saadi said the families of the imprisoned women can secure their release by paying bail. He added that 13 Sunni women convicted on criminal charges will be transferred from a Baghdad jail to prisons in their home provinces of Anbar, Salahuddin and Ninevah to serve out their sentences.
The detention of female prisoners has been a focus of the demonstrations, but it was not clear whether the decision to release some of them will satisfy the protesters.
Also Thursday, hundreds of thousands of Shiite pilgrims converged on the holy city of Karbala to commemorate the Arbaeen religious event, which marks the passing of 40 days after the seventh century martyrdom of the revered Shiite saint Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.
The pilgrims practiced the ritual of self-flagellation on the streets, hoisted Shiite religious flags on trees and lamp posts and served food from tents pitched on street corners.
Zaid Mohammed, a 21-year old student, said he walked to Karbala from a nearby city to show his deep respect for Imam Hussein.
"All the people came here to show their gratitude and appreciation for the sacrifices made by Imam Hussein while fighting injustice," he said. "We have decided to confront all the security risks that we might face in our way to Karbala."
Shiite pilgrims are one of the favorite targets for Sunni insurgents during Shiite religious events. Tight security surrounded the mass Arbaeen gathering as in the previous years.