Bahrain says open to dialogue with Shia opposition

AFP , Friday 21 Nov 2014

Sheik Ali Salman, head of the main Shia opposition group Al-Wefaq which is boycotting Saturday's parliamentary elections, urges Bahrainis to stay away from the polls and calls on the government to free all political prisoners during a public address in Manama, Bahrain, Thursday, Nov. 20, 2014 (Photo: AP)

Bahrain's Sunni rulers are open to dialogue with the Shia-led opposition despite its boycott of elections this weekend, a cabinet minister said Friday.

But Information Minister Samira Rajab said that authorities in the Gulf monarchy rejected "chaos" and "foreign" interference, particularly from Shia Iran.

"The door to dialogue will never be shut, including with Al-Wefaq," she said in an interview with AFP, referring to the main Shia opposition movement.

Al-Wefaq and four other opposition groups are boycotting Saturday's legislative and municipal polls in Bahrain, a key ally of Washington and home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet.

The opposition wants a "real" constitutional monarchy with an elected prime minister independent from the ruling Al-Khalifa royal family.

But the Saudi-backed Sunni dynasty which rules over the majority Shia kingdom has rejected the demand.

Nearly four years ago the Shia opposition led a month-long uprising calling for democratic reforms, but the protest movement was crushed by the authorities in March 2011.

Shia demonstrators still frequently clash with security forces in villages outside the capital Manama, although hundreds have been arrested and faced trial after the uprising.

Al-Wefaq was in October banned by a Bahraini court from carrying out any activities for three months for violating the law on associations.

The movement had earlier engaged in several rounds of talks with the authorities but refused to resume discussions in September despite a new proposal announced by Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa.

The proposal had five core elements, including the redefinition of electoral districts and permission for parliament to question the premier and his ministers.

The security forces, blamed for the deaths of dozens of protesters, would also be bound by new codes of conduct.

Al-Wefaq head Sheikh Ali Salman said at the time that the proposal "ignores the legitimate demands of the people".

Rajab insisted Friday that the authorities would not tolerate "chaos".

"Violence is not allowed. It is tantamount to terrorism."

She also denounced "foreign interference", saying it fanned tensions and stood in the way of an agreement between the Bahraini opposition and the government.

Rajab pointed to Tehran and said "Iran is a neighbour which whom we wish to have good relations".

Bahrain has repeatedly accused Iran, which lies just across the Gulf, of backing the Shia opposition.

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