Manama (Bahrain): Bahrain's Sunni rulers on Saturday launched landmark reconciliation talks with the
opposition following 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
Saturday in a convention center in the capital, Manama.
After a 45-minute ceremonial session, the participants
adjourned for the day.
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
Delegates from Bahrain's secular opposition party, Al
Waad, also attended the talks, all holding 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 per cent of Bahrain's
525,000 people, but claim they face systematic discrimination
such as being blocked from top government, political and
The head of Al Wefaq, Sheik Ali Salman, told supporters
yesterday that his group will join the talks but will stick to
its calls for the Sunni monarchy to loosen the grip on power.
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 today's opening session because he remains in
First Published: Saturday, July 02, 2011, 16:11