Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Bahrain government continues brutal crackdown

The main Shiite opposition party in Bahrain has said it will boycott the proposed “national dialogue” next month and will also sit out the planned September elections. Al Wefaq leader Shaikh Ali Salman said it was a protest against the government for not doing enough to address Shiite concerns. "There has to be real dialogue that results in political reforms,” Salman said. “We believe the dialogue was a step forward for the country but setting conditions before the process is not acceptable.” Salman told Chinese news agency Xinhua they would not take part in the 24 September elections because the “issues faced by people are more important and are still ignored”. He also said government needed to address the sacking of workers, arrest of doctors and nurses, as well as politicians and other citizens before entering any dialogue. (photo of Shaikh Ali Salman by Hasan Jamali)

The national dialogue forum Salman is referring to starts on Saturday. It is aiming to attract 300 participants bringing together the full spectrum of Bahrain's political, social, economic and rights groups. According to Dubai’s Gulf News (which is distributed in Bahrain), the participation rate of invitees is 94 percent. But Al Wefaq was the big undecided group and suspicious that the too wide variety of issues on the table would diminish the chances of agreeing on real democratisation. Despite being almost ha;f of parliament, it was invited to choose only five representatives to the 300-person conference.

Al Wefaq is Bahrain’s largest party winning 18 of the 40 seats in last year’s parliamentary election. However they are regularly outvoted by a bloc of Sunni parties and independents. In February, all 18 Al Wefaq MPs resigned after police killed seven people in the battle for Pearl Roundabout (now razed and known as Al Farooq junction). The Government crushed the rebellion in March with the aid of troops from Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

On 1 June, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa announced the lifting of a "state of national safety" he had decreed and offered talks. Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Khalifa went to the Oval Office a week later to meet President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton to seek support for the national dialogue. Bahrain is home to the US Fifth Fleet so the US has been cautious about overtly attacking the regime despite condemning the security crackdown. The State Department formally welcomed the talks on 15 June. However Assistant Secretary Michael Posner told his Bahraini hosts meaningful dialogue could only take place “in a climate of respect for the freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly.”

This was a veiled reference to the many trials and military court proceedings initiated by the government to deal with 500 people arrested since the February protest. On Monday Bahrain launched a mass trial of 28 doctors and nurses accused of joining the protests and spreading “false information” which means talking to foreign media. Another 20 doctors and nurses are accused of an "anti-state plot". On 22 June, a special security court in Bahrain sentenced eight activists and opposition leaders to life in prison on charges of “plotting to overthrow the government”.

Meanwhile a special military court called the Court of National Safety came into being on 12 June to hold the trials of politically motivated cases against opposition members of parliament and a prominent defence lawyer. According to Amnesty International, the courts were put in place to respond to the protests and are presided by one military and two civilian judges. The court sentenced a young activist to a year in prison for charges related to her public recital of a poem critical of Bahrain’s King.

Two Al Wefaq MPs are among those arrested and kept in secret solitary confinement. They have no access to legal representation or family present. Human Rights Watch has called on Bahrain to end the proceedings. “Most defendants hauled before Bahrain's special military court are facing blatantly political charges, and trials are unfair," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "The Crown Prince may be sincere in his efforts to promote dialogue, but what good is that while back home the government is crushing peaceful dissent and locking up people who should be part of the dialogue."

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