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Bahrain opposition figure to return in test for talks

Exiled Shi'ite opposition leader set to return.

February 22, 2011 11:46 by

A Bahraini opposition figure was set to return to the Gulf Arab country on Tuesday after a week of unprecedented protests by majority Shi’ite Muslims against the U.S.-backed Sunni monarchy.

Hassan Mushaimaa, leader of the opposition Haq movement, said on his Facebook page on Monday that he wanted to see if the island nation’s leadership was serious about dialogue and would arrest him or not. He was due to arrive on Tuesday evening.

Mushaimaa, who is based in London, is one of 25 people on trial since last year over an alleged coup plot but a statement by King Hamad bin Isa on Monday hinted that the trial would be shelved, allowing Mushaimaa an unhindered return.

State media said the king had ordered the release of unspecified convicted prisoners and a stop to ongoing court cases, in what opposition figures say they understand to be a reference to the trial.

It was not clear if this would be enough to bring opposition groups into a dialogue that King Hamad has asked his son, the crown prince, to conduct. The protests, inspired by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, were peaceful but seven people died and hundreds were wounded after police tried to break them up.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has condemned attempts by security forces to crush the protest movement on an island that hosts the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, limiting the government’s room for manoeuvre.

The protesters want Bahrain to move towards a constitutional monarchy, in contrast to the current system where Bahrainis vote for a parliament that has little power and policy remains the preserve of a ruling elite centred on the ruling dynasty.

The al-Khalifa family, which has ruled Bahrain for 200 years, dominates a cabinet led by the king’s uncle, who has been prime minister for 40 years since independence in 1971.

The opposition also wants the release of political prisoners.

On Monday the government cancelled the March 13 opening race of the Formula One season in Bahrain. “At the present time the country’s entire attention is focused on building a new national dialogue for Bahrain,” Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa said in a statement.


Protesters have set up camp at Pearl Square in the capital Manama where some 10,000 gathered on Monday demanding more say in a country whose Sunni ruling elite is seen by the West and Arab allies such as neighbouring Saudi Arabia as a bulwark against the influence of Shi’ite power Iran.

Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil producer, has a restive Shi’ite minority of its own in its Eastern Province.

Bahraini Shi’ites reject the idea that their affiliations are to Iran, saying such attitudes are typical of discrimination that extends to housing and jobs.

Although Shi’ite Muslims account for about 70 percent of the population, they are a minority in Bahrain’s 40-seat parliament due to an electoral process that they say shuts them out.

The government denies that it treats Shi’ites unfairly and in a rally widely covered by state television on Monday, thousands carried Bahraini flags and signs supporting unity and the dialogue proposed by the government.

A resolution read at the rally rejected any attempt to question the government’s legitimacy, but also called for the release of prisoners of conscience.

Mushaimaa’s Haq movement is more radical than the Shi’ite Wefaq party, from which it split in 2006 when Wefaq contested a parliamentary election. Wefaq’s 17 MPs resigned last week in protest at the state’s use of violence on the protesters.

Haq’s leaders often have been arrested in recent years, only to receive royal pardons. Some were rearrested in the crackdown last year, when 25 Shi’ite activists including Mushaimaa were charged with trying to overthrow the government violently.

(Writing by Andrew Hammond; editing by Myra MacDonald)

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