Bahrain opposition agrees to talks

22 January 2013 Last updated at 09:10 ET Bahraini Shia Muslim women demonstrate in support of jailed human rights activists and political prisoners in Sanabis village, west of Manama, on 6/1/13 Protests have continued for nearly two years in a stand-off between the opposition and the government Bahrain’s opposition has accepted an offer from the country’s justice minister to resume talks.

Sheikh Khalid bin Ali Al Khalifa issued the invitation to political societies in an apparent bid to break an impasse that has damaged Bahrain’s economy.

A leading member of al Wefaq, the biggest opposition society, was guardedly optimistic about the offer.

The Gulf island nation has been wracked by violence for the past two years.

Khalil al-Marzook, of Wefaq, told the BBC the movement was “ready to partner with the ruling family and the community to find solutions”.

But he added: “We need to be assured that the process is credible, we need detail about how agreement will be reached, where it will go and how the people will ratify it.”

On the 14 February 2011, peaceful protesters took over an iconic Bahraini monument, Pearl Roundabout. Three days later security forces cleared the site using tear gas, batons and birdshot.

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In the months following the Pearl Roundabout takeover there have been repeated calls for dialogue but the atmosphere of distrust on both sides is deep.

The opposition rejected an initial offer of talks in June 2011 on the grounds that King Hamad had pre-selected participants. As efforts at dialogue stalled the government responded by demanding the opposition renounce violence.

The opposition did so and then charged the government with more foot-dragging.

What makes this latest offer significant is the call by the justice minister to “resume political discussions.” In the past the emphasis has been on a “national dialogue” which avoided references to political solutions.

This suggests the opposition’s call to reform the political system and move toward a constitutional monarchy has not been dismissed out of hand.

At least two protesters died and hundreds were injured.

As violence escalated 35 people, including five police officers, were killed, hundreds more were hurt and thousands jailed in February and March 2011.

The vast majority were Shia Muslims in a country ruled by a minority Sunni royal family

Since then, opposition and human rights activists say another 45 people have been killed, a figure which the government disputes.

In October last year two policemen died of injuries sustained during clashes with protesters in villages outside the capital, Manama.

Thirteen activists and politicians including the leader of the secular Waad party, Ibrahim Sharif, remain in jail, convicted and in some cases given life sentences on evidence that is widely accepted to have been obtained under torture.

Street protests and gatherings are illegal and human rights defenders are routinely detained for activities that include tweeting criticism of the king and his government.

Mr Marzook warned that if what he described as “the seasonal call for dialogue” was a ruse to discourage protests ahead of the 14 February anniversary it would serve to “deepen distrust between the people and the government.”

He added the goal of the opposition remained the achievement of a constitutional monarchy something he said the authorities continue to resist.

One Bahraini commentator who asked not to be named was sceptical, saying: “There are splits within the royal family over how to move forward but at the end of the day the unity of the family will always trump the unity of the nation.”

No-one from the justice minister’s office was available for comment.

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