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File photo of Bahraini Shiite Muslims calling for the release of political prisoners on 10 June 2011 AP Photo/Hasan Jamali

Negotiation talks begin amid Bahrain's protest crackdown

The kingdom’s biggest Shiite party agreed to join today’s talks at the last minute, but it isn’t too optimistic about how where the discussion will lead.

BAHRAINI rulers have launched landmark reconciliation talks with the opposition today, after four months of Shiite-led protests for greater rights and harsh crackdowns on dissent in the strategic Gulf kingdom.

Washington has strongly pushed for dialogue in the island nation, which hosts the US Navy’s 5th Fleet. The Sunni monarchy has made token concessions ahead of the so-called “national dialogue,” including sanctioning an international investigation that will include probes into the conduct of security forces during the revolt.

But the government has not relented on opposition demands to free all detainees and clear others convicted of protest-linked charges, including eight activists sentenced to life in prison last month.

Bahrain’s biggest Shiite party, Al Wefaq, decided at the last minute to join the government-led talks, which opened today in a convention center in the capital, Manama, with about 300 delegates from various political parties and government-linked groups.

Parliament Speaker Khalifa bin Ahmed al-Dhahrani opened the forum by hailing the gathering as “a historic opportunity for all of us to overcome this critical stage of the nation’s history through dialogue.” He said the goal is to bring “together different points of view to develop common visions” and added that the Sunni rulers are at the talks “without preconditions.”

After a 45-minute ceremonial session, the participants adjourned for the day. The talks are to last until the end of July, with delegates meeting three times a week. Al Wefaq’s decision to come to the table lends important credibility to the government-organised talks. However, it could cause divisions within Bahrain’s Shiite majority as many insist that dialogue is futile until the government frees detainees and halts trials links to the protests.

Not too optimistic

Al Wefaq’s three delegates who attended Saturday’s session, were not optimistic the dialogue will lead to meaningful reforms.

“It started as a monologue,” said one of the three, Bushra al-Hindi. “The agenda has been previously set by the government in order to exclude talks about critical issues, such as moving along with a process that will reshape the country into a constitutional monarchy.”

Al Wefak’s leader, Sheik Ali Salman, had told supporters yesterday that his group will stick to its calls for the Sunni monarchy to loosen the grip on power and allow people to elect a government.

Delegates from Bahrain’s secular opposition party, Al Waad, also attended the talks. They held a picture of their leader, Ibrahim Sharif — the most prominent Sunni politician who has been imprisoned along with 20 other opposition leaders for plotting to overthrow Bahrain’s 200-year-old monarchy.

Shiites account for about 70 percent of Bahrain’s 525,000 people, but claim they face systematic discrimination such as being blocked from top government, political and military posts.

At least 32 people have died in the unrest since the protests began in February — inspired by uprisings elsewhere in the Middle East. Hundreds of opposition supporters, activists and others have been taken into custody and many other perceived protest backers have been purged from jobs and universities.

Amid the crackdowns, Al Wefaq staged a mass resignation of its 18 lawmakers in the 40-member lower house of parliament. Two former lawmakers are in custody and on trial on anti-state crimes. Al Wefaq said one of them, Jawad Firooz, was listed on the party’s five-member delegation to the talks although he didn’t attend Saturday’s opening session because he remains in detention.


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