Bahrain's Sunni rulers today launched landmark reconciliation talks with the opposition following four months of Shi'ite-led protests for greater rights and harsh crackdowns on dissent in the strategic Gulf kingdom.
Washington has strongly pushed for dialogue in the island nation, which hosts the US Navy's 5th Fleet. The Sunni monarchy has made token concessions ahead of the so-called "national dialogue," including sanctioning an international investigation that will include probes into the conduct of security forces during the revolt.
But the government has not relented on opposition demands to free all detainees and clear others convicted of protest-linked charges, including eight activists sentenced to life in prison last month.
Bahrain's biggest Shi'ite party, Al Wefaq, decided at the last minute to join the government-led talks, which opened today in a convention center in the capital, Manama.
After a 45-minute ceremonial session, the participants adjourned for the day.
Al Wefaq's decision to come to the table lends important credibility to the government-organised talks.
However, it could cause divisions within Bahrain's Shi'ite majority as many insist that dialogue is futile until the government frees detainees and halts trials links to the protests.
Delegates from Bahrain's secular opposition party, Al Waad, also attended the talks, all holding a picture of their leader, Ibrahim Sharif — the most prominent Sunni politician who has been imprisoned along with 20 other opposition leaders for plotting to overthrow Bahrain's 200-year-old monarchy.
Shiites account for about 70 per cent of Bahrain's 525,000 people, but claim they face systematic discrimination such as being blocked from top government, political and military posts.
The head of Al Wefaq, Sheik Ali Salman, told supporters yesterday that his group will join the talks but will stick to its calls for the Sunni monarchy to loosen the grip on power.
At least 32 people have died in the unrest since the protests began in February — inspired by uprisings elsewhere in the Middle East. Hundreds of opposition supporters, activists and others have been taken into custody and many other perceived protest backers have been purged from jobs and universities.
Amid the crackdowns, Al Wefaq staged a mass resignation of its 18 lawmakers in the 40-member lower house of parliament. Two former lawmakers are in custody and on trial on anti-state crimes. Al Wefaq said one of them, Jawad Firooz, was listed on the party's five-member delegation to the talks although he didn't attend Saturday's opening session because he remains in detention.