Bahrain's king: Political reforms on right track

March 20, 2012 - 2:06 PM
Mideast Bahrain

Riot police prepare to disperse protestors from the streets of the western village of Shahrakan, Bahrain, on Monday, March 19, 2012. Clashes erupted after thousands of mourners participated in the politically charged funeral for Sabri Mahfoudh, 27, whose death the opposition and his family blame on the effects of tear gas. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali)

MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) — Bahrain's king said Tuesday the Gulf nation has made progress enacting political reforms in response to the uprising by the country's Shiite majority for more rights.

King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa said improvements have been made to the security forces and the judicial system after international investigators criticized them in a report on the unrest.

The monarch's comments were part of his speech on Bahrain's efforts to implement the report's recommendations, aimed at encouraging reconciliation between Shiites and a Sunni minority that rules the tiny but strategically important island that is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.

"We praise the efforts of the government and its hard work and seriousness in implementing the recommendations to the best standards possible," the king said, adding that the opposition, too, has the responsibility to "do their part to participate and support democratic practices in accordance with the law."

At least 45 people have been killed during months of anti-government demonstrations and harsh crackdowns. Hundreds of opposition supporters have been detained and tried in a special court, including dozens of doctors and nurses who treated injured protesters.

Shiites account for about 70 percent of Bahrain's population of some 525,000 people, but they say they have faced decades of discrimination and are blocked from top political and security posts.

Since the revolt erupted some 13 months ago, the Sunni rulers have promised reforms, although they have refused to make the far-reaching changes the protesters have demanded. These include an elected government and an end to the monarchy's power to set key state policies.

Street battles between security forces and protesters still take place almost every day around the island nation that has been the Gulf's hardest hit country by the Arab Spring protests.

The opposition demands that authorities release all political prisoners before talks on ending the uprising.

Among those they want freed are activists and opposition figures who have been tried in a special security court and jailed on anti-state offenses. The opposition also insists that all Shiites purged from jobs during crackdown be reinstated.

Bahrain's leaders have taken steps to restore dismissed workers from state-run and private companies. The heavily criticized security court that was set up during last year's emergency rule has been disbanded, and all protest-related trials transferred to civilian courts.

On Tuesday, 20 medical professionals convicted of anti-state crimes and sentenced to five to 15 years in prison were back in court for a hearing during their retrial in a criminal court.