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>> The Financial Times


PRINCE TRIES TO BREAK BAHRAIN DEADLOCK

The Financial Times - January 16, 2014

by Simeon Kerr in Dubai

Bahrain’s crown prince has made a dramatic intervention in a bid to break the Gulf state’s political deadlock, raising hopes for more focused negotiations with the opposition next week.

Sheikh Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa on Wednesday met Ali Salman of al-Wefaq, the main Shia opposition party, as well as other groups in a move mandated by the king.

The government last week officially suspended a year-long national dialogue after opposition delegates boycotted the talks because of a rise in cases being brought against Wefaq officials.

In a statement, the office of the crown prince said all parties were committed to “accelerate dialogue and elevate discussions by including more senior representation from all parties”.

A framework of topics was also agreed, with talks expected to resume next week, the statement added. The crown prince is not expected to have a public role in any renewed talks, but will be involved behind the scenes, officials say.

The majority Shia continue to demonstrate against discrimination and what they say are the minority Sunni-led government’s repressive security measures. State loyalists have backed tough measures against the violent protests, claiming that neighbouring Iran is fomenting the unrest.

Bahrain’s instability, which is damaging the island’s services-focused economy, has deepened mistrust between the Sunni Gulf states and Shia Iran.

After pro-democracy demonstrations broke out in February 2011, the crown prince tried to forge a dialogue with the opposition. But Saudi-led Gulf troops were sent to the island at the invitation of the king, initiating a brutal crackdown on dissent.

Responding to international criticism of human rights violations, the government has since launched reforms, but the opposition says the changes have acted as window-dressing for continued repression.

The crown prince, who has assumed a lower profile since the crackdown, is regarded as a liberal within the ruling establishment and is seen as more likely to succeed in negotiating with the opposition.

Al Wefaq’s Abduljalil Khalil, who attended the talks, said the opposition asked the government to generate a positive atmosphere for dialogue by releasing political prisoners and instituting a road map and timetable for the talks aiming to reach “real power-sharing and a democratic monarchy”.

Mr Khalil said the crown prince expressed his determination to help resolve the political crisis. “We respected what the crown prince was saying, but we need to see action,” he added.

Highlighting broad government support for Wednesday’s initiative, the crown prince was joined by other government officials, including one noted hardliner.

Mr Salman took part in the meeting even though he is being investigated on charges of spreading sectarian hatred, which he denies. He was joined by Khalil al-Marzooq, a senior Wefaq official who also faces criminal charges in a separate case.





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