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Bahrain's main Shiite opposition will partially pull out of dialogue

By the CNN Wire Staff
  • The party will limit its participation to political and legal issues
  • Talks between the opposition and the government began last week
  • More than 100 prisoners are freed as a goodwill gesture
  • Bahrain has seen months of unrest, with many suspected pro-reform protesters arrested

(CNN) -- Bahrain's main Shiite opposition party, Al-Wefaq, said Friday that it will partially pull out of workshops of the so-called National Consensus Dialogue, declaring the talks' conclusions appeared to be pre-ordained.

"We only have four representatives to participate in the four dialogue workshops, and we preferred to limit our participation to the two workshops" where political and legal issues were to be discussed, said Hadi al-Mosawi, an Al-Wefaq representative, about the talks, which got under way last Saturday.

Representatives of Al-Wefaq and the leftist Waad party are among the groups in the capital city of Manama who are participating in the talks, which were initiated by Bahrain's King Hamad.

The Al-Wefaq party had named five people to participate in the dialogue, but one of them is Jawad Fairoz, a parliamentarian who resigned in February and is currently in detention.

"It must be noted that the authorities designed the dialogue so that all opposing views are diluted," al-Mosawi told CNN. Only about 35 of the 300 participants represented the opposition, and the agenda "has been set so that it is directed towards a pre-determined outcome," he said.

The representative of the secular opposition Waad party, Muneera Fakhro, called for non-governmental organizations to be given the opportunity to participate in the democratic process. Instead, Fakhro said, "the government has been creating government-operated organizations, or GONGOs, and restricting the freedom of independent activists."

The 300 invitees participate in workshops twice weekly at Sheik Isa Center, the central library in the capital city of Manama. There, the participants are distributed among four halls, each holding some 75 people. Each participant is given three to five minutes to address the day's theme. Afterward, the committees in charge of the discussions summarize the suggestions. The king, in turn, is expected to deliver to parliament a document containing the suggested "amendments" to the constitution.

But the process is not a fair one, said Jameel Kadhim of the Al-Wefaq Party. "The discussions are overwhelmed by pro-government supporters who obstruct any criticism of the status-quo," he said. Any amendments would likely be limited to the granting of minor powers to the elected lower house of parliament.

"All are much below expectations," Kadhim said, adding that the direction of the discussions to date indicates that the government will be granted extra powers to tighten its grip on political and non-governmental organizations.

Because the sessions are dominated by pro-government speakers, their outcome will in line with the government's wishes, Kadhim said.

Such criticism comes as Al-Wefaq and other opposition parties are experiencing increasing pressure from their members to pull out of the talks altogether. The February 14 Movement, which comprises activists on Facebook and Twitter, staged a protest this week in Bilad al-Qadeem, south of the capital. Government security forces used tear gas and stun grenades to disperse the crowd, and arrested a number of people accused of participating in the protest.

In his Friday sermon, the most senior Shiite cleric said the country's rulers are "not serious" about the dialogue and that "talk about the necessity of (a) slow, step-by-step process is aimed at stifling the urgently needed reforms."

The cleric, Sheik Isa Qassim, called for a "fair election process and a constitution that is based on the principle of sovereignty of the people." He warned against "procrastination that would lead to no positive results and continuation of injustices."

Following protests staged this week by "February 14 Youths," security forces clamped down on the protesters south of the capital and detained a score of them.

The talks were begun last Saturday in a putative effort to reach agreement on reforms following months of unrest in the Gulf state. The government released more than 100 prisoners as a goodwill gesture last Saturday.

Bahrain's majority Shiite community has long complained of discrimination by the ruling Sunni elite.

Last week, U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner had welcomed Al-Wefaq's decision to join the talks, calling the party "an important voice (in) a process that has the potential to serve as a vehicle for reform and reconciliation."

Bahrain is a strategically important nation to the United States, and home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet. It has been riven by five months of pro-democracy demonstrations and violent responses by government forces.