September 19, 2014 / 5:44 PM / in 3 years

Bahrain says parties find common ground but Shi'ites say demands not met

Bahrain's Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa attends the 25th Arab Summit in Kuwait City, March 25, 2014. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

MANAMA (Reuters) - Bahrain’s Crown Prince said on Friday political parties had identified five areas of “common ground” including potential parliamentary and judicial reforms, in a bid to end years of instability in the U.S.-allied Gulf Arab island state.

But the main Shi‘ite opposition said the proposed areas did not meet their demands.

Sunni Muslim-ruled Bahrain has been shaken by persistent unrest since mostly Shi‘ite Muslim demonstrators, who complain of political marginalization, took to the streets in February 2011 to call for greater democracy.

Stalled reconciliation talks between the al-Khalifa ruling family and the Shi‘ite opposition were revived early this year but later appeared to stall following prosecutions of Wefaq officials on a variety of charges.

Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, seen as a moderate member of the royal family, presented the five topics to King Hamad as a framework for dialogue intended to increase “long-term stability” in the country, a statement from his court said.

The five points address major Shi‘ite demands including re-defining electoral districts to ensure greater representation; measures to enable parliament to question the actions of ministers, including the prime minister and his deputies; and granting parliament new rights to approve the cabinet. Judicial and security reforms were also part of the package.

Bahrain’s Shi‘ites have long complained of political and economic marginalization, an accusation the government denies.

Prince Salman did not identify the political parties who had chosen the five areas but said they were participants in the National Dialogue -- reconciliation talks attended by several political groups over the past 18 months.

Six opposition groups, including the main al Wefaq organization representing the Shi‘ite Muslim community, have been participating in the talks alongside government officials, pro-government associations and several independent lawmakers.

“This series of bilateral talks has now resulted in the delivery of a framework consisting of areas of common ground identified during the talks,” the statement said.

Thousands of demonstrators took part in one of Wefaq’s regular anti-government protests on Friday. The group’s secretary-general Sheikh Ali Salman said the proposed reforms do not represent the opposition or the Bahraini people.

“Our message to the ruling authority is that we will reject ... elections that have forged our will in advance,” he told the protesters, according to a statement sent by Wefaq.

Three years after authorities put down the initial wave of protests in 2011, mistrust between the Shi‘ite opposition and the Saudi-backed al-Khalifa family remains high, and tensions have been heightened by the regional rivalry between Sunni heavyweight Saudi Arabia and Shi‘ite Iran.

Wefaq wants a constitutional monarchy with a government chosen from within a democratically elected parliament.

Wefaq had previously said it would boycott parliamentary elections due to take place this year unless the government guarantees the vote will reflect the will of the people.

Abdulmohsin Amir, a 55-year-old driver, who joined Wefaq’s protest on Friday said he was boycotting the upcoming elections.

“I don’t trust the government and certainly not the promises made recently by the Crown Prince,” he said.

“How can he provide Bahrainis a better future when nothing that we have demanded are on his list; we want freedom for our prisoners, punishment for those who killed and tortured our children and a decent living standard.”

Additional reporting by William Maclean, Rania El Gamal; Editing by Dominic Evans

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