Thousands in Bahrain rally for reform
Thousands attend rally after martial law lifted; Speaker appointed to lead dialogue, opposition objects
June 12, 2011 8:18 by p.deleon
Thousands of Bahrainis attended a rally for political reform on Saturday in the Gulf Arab state that crushed a pro-democracy protest movement in March.
Bahrain, where the Sunni Al-Khalifa family rules over a majority Shi’ite population, has accused activists of being sectarian and backed by Shi’ite power Iran. The opposition deny both charges.
Bahrain brought in Saudi and United Arab Emirates troops in March and introduced martial law, which ended last week, to help end the protests.
“Some try to manipulate our demands, to make them Shi’ite demands. This is not true. We are not calling for an Iran, but to build up our political reforms together, Shi’ite and Sunni, which will benefit all Bahrainis,” said Sheikh Ali Salman, head of the opposition group which organised the event.
“We will continue peacefully and we will continue our peaceful demonstratrations,” he said, as the crowd responded shouting “peaceful, peaceful!”
The protest was announced in advance but did not receive government permission, opposition supporters said. It was held in the Shi’ite district of Saar, west of the capital.
Police did not stop up to 10,000 people who came to the rally, many in cars, said a Reuters witness. Helicopters buzzed overhead.
The Interior Ministry maintains a heavy presence around the Pearl Roundabout in Manama where protesters camped out for about six weeks, blocking access to all traffic to make sure it does not become another focal point for protests.
King Hamad bin Isa has offered a new dialogue with opposition groups starting in July. Members of the main opposition group Wefaq said they would try to hold protest rallies every week until then.
“It should offer real political solutions, it should not be cosmetic talk. We are serious about this dialogue,” Salman said.
“They say the Shi’ites want a special government for themselves. No, we want a civilian state and a government for all, both Sunni and Shi’ites. This is what we demanded in Pearl Roundabout and it is what we will again call for here.”
Organisers from Wefaq quietened some among the crowd who began chants calling for bringing down the government.
The government appointed its parliament speaker on Saturday to lead the national dialogue, the state news agency said, but the opposition said Crown Prince Salman — seen as leader of a moderate wing of the ruling family — should lead the talks.
Khalifa al-Dhahrani, speaker of the Council of Representatives, said he hoped to bring “all parties concerned with matters of the state” into the dialogue.
Wefaq’s Khalil al-Marzooq said Dhahrani was known to be opposed to some political reforms.
“He has previously said that he objects to discussion of reforms over elections, constitutional amendments and the issue of discrimination,” he said. “We call for the crown prince to lead these talks.”
Bahrain’s cabinet is dominated by the ruling family and the king also appoints all members of an upper assembly, neutering the powers of the elected parliament.
Shi’ites at the rally said the event had broken a fear barrier after over two months of harsh military rule. Twenty-one opposition leaders are on military trial for trying to overthrow the system and 48 doctors and nurses are on military trial for backing the Pearl Roundabout protest.
“This needed to happen. The government thought they could suppress everything with the state of emergency,” one of the protesters said. (Reporting by Erika Solomon, writing by Andrew Hammond, editing by Janet Lawrence)