MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) — Four U.S. journalists arrested in Bahrain while covering the anniversary of the island nation's 2011 uprising were charged, released and heading for the airport Tuesday to fly out of the country, a lawyer said.
Despite charging them, Bahraini officials allowed them to head for the airport, apparently after the intervention of the U.S. Embassy in Manama. Bahrain is the home of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, which patrols the Persian Gulf and surrounding waterways crucial to the global oil trade.
But their arrest and charges highlight the sensitivity the kingdom still feels five years after the uprising, as low-level unrest and protests continue.
The journalists had left a police station after meeting with prosecutors and were on their way to the airport to fly out Tuesday night, lawyer Mohammed al-Jishi told The Associated Press. Authorities kept their cameras and computers, al-Jishi said.
The reporters had been held since their arrests Sunday while covering protests in Sitra, a Shiite community outside of the capital, Manama.
Bahrain police initially said they detained the four Americans on Sunday for providing "false information that they were tourists" and also alleged that one took part in an attack on Bahraini officers.
In a statement Tuesday, Manama's chief prosecutor Nawaf al-Awadi said the journalists' possession of cameras and computers sparked their investigation. It said the journalists were freed "pending the completion of the investigation."
An Arabic version of the statement from al-Awadi said the journalists had been charged with illegally assembling with the intent to commit a crime. A later English version carried by the state-run Bahrain News Agency said they were charged with "unlawful obstruction of vehicles and attending unlawful gatherings." The differences between the two could not be immediately reconciled.
The nature of the journalists' release suggests they'll likely be banned from returning to Bahrain.
The U.S. Embassy in Manama declined to immediately comment on news of the journalists' release. On Monday, U.S. Ambassador William V. Roebuck met with Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, according to a late-night statement on the Bahrain News Agency.
Only one of the four journalists has been identified so far, freelancer Anna Therese Day of Boise, Idaho.
A friend of Day's, Jesse Ayala, has said the journalists were simply doing their job and denied they took part in any "illegal behavior." Day had previously contributed to The Huffington Post and The Daily Beast. Police said one of the journalists was a woman and three were men.
On Sunday, police arrested a photographer working with the group, two witnesses said. Later that night, police surrounded the area with checkpoints and arrested the other three, they said. The witnesses spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity for fear of being arrested.
An Interior Ministry statement alleged one of the four journalists "was wearing a mask and participating in attacks on police alongside other rioters in Sitra." The statement also said the journalists entered the country between Thursday and Friday on tourist visas.
"At least some of the arrestees were in the country as members of the international media but had not registered with the concerned authority and were involved in illegal activities," the statement said, without elaborating on what those activities were.
Bahrain requires international journalists to obtain special media visas before entering to work. The island kingdom allows citizens of many countries, including the United States, to get a tourist visa on arrival. Obtaining a media visa takes several days, and activists say Bahrain has denied media visas for some journalists since the 2011 protests.
The 2011 protests in Bahrain were the largest of the Arab Spring wave of demonstrations to rock the Gulf Arab states. They were driven by the country's Shiite majority, which demanded greater political rights from the Sunni-led monarchy.
The protests were quashed after Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates sent in reinforcements. Bahrain blamed regional Shiite power Iran for stirring up the demonstrations, though a government-sponsored investigation into the unrest said there wasn't a "discernable link" between the protests and the Islamic Republic based on the information the government gave them.
Bahrain's government committed to a number of reforms in the wake of the 2011 demonstrations, but low-level unrest continues, particularly in Shiite communities. Small groups of activists frequently clash with riot police and bombs occasionally target security forces. Hundreds of Bahraini youths protested Sunday on the fifth anniversary of the uprising.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said at least six reporters are imprisoned by the kingdom over their work.
"It is sad that the fifth anniversary of the protests is marked by the arrest of yet more journalists in Bahrain, which has since become one of the worst jailers of journalists in the Arab world," said Sherif Mansour, the committee's Middle East and North Africa program coordinator.