Bahrain Shiites pull out of reconciliation talks

July 17, 2011 - 12:29 PM

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Bahrain's biggest Shiite party pulled out of the U.S.-backed talks with the Gulf kingdom's Sunni rulers on Sunday, claiming the government was not serious about addressing Shiite demands for greater rights and political freedoms.

Washington has strongly pushed for dialogue in the strategic island nation, home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet. The protests that began in February — inspired by the wider Arab uprisings — have been the gravest challenge to any Gulf ruler in decades.

Khalil al-Marzooq, a senior member of Al Wefaq party and the leader of its delegation to the talks, told the Associated Press the party's top leaders decided to withdraw from the so-called national dialogue during a meeting Sunday. Al-Marzooq said they have concluded that the government is not interested in political reform.

"They have disregarded the opposition's efforts to make the talks meaningful and we were not given a chance to put our demands for discussion," al-Marzooq said. Al Wefaq was also given only five of 300 seats at government-designed talks.

The government did not immediately comment on Wefaq's decision to withdraw from the talks, which started July 2. They are to last until the end of the month.

Al Wefaq reluctantly joined the talks amid widespread anger among the majority Shiites who claim they suffer systematic discrimination at the hands of the Sunni dynasty ruling Bahrain. Sectarian tensions in the Gulf kingdom have deepened during five months of protests and harsh security crackdowns that killed at least 33 people.

Hundreds of protesters, activists and Shiite professionals like doctors and lawyers remain imprisoned awaiting trial on charges ranging from trying to topple the government to participating in illegal protests.

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.

Ahead of the reconciliation talks, the government made some token concessions, including sanctioning an international investigation that will include probes into the conduct of security forces during the revolt. Authorities halted trials of opposition supporters in a military-linked tribunal and moved them to civilian courts.

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