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Bahrain opposition on verge of pulling out of government talks

Al Wefaq, Bahrain's main Shiite political party, is close to pulling out of the national dialogue to discuss reform, arguing it's only a fig leaf for continued autocracy.

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Representatives of the monarchy are not present. Members are divided into four groups focused on politics, rights, economics, and social issues, and are each given five minutes to speak in a session. Consensus is reached by majority opinion, says Marzooq. Because the government filled the invitee list with pro-government delegates, the voices of the opposition are drowned out.

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Vote stacking?

The Al Wefaq delegates tried multiple times to change the process, says Marzooq, asking the head of the dialogue to change participant selection and other aspects they felt were unfair, to no avail. A government spokesman could not be reached for comment.

The group’s participation, announced at the last minute, was calculated to avoid becoming a scapegoat for the failure of dialogue. They must balance that interest with strong popular opposition to the talks. Many of the young protesters who take the brunt of police crackdowns are opposed to any dialogue before reform takes place.

At many protests, citizens reject Al Wefaq’s calls for democratic change within the system, and instead call for the downfall of the monarchy. No one in the talks represents their views. The government has accused the protesters of being in league with Iran, whose regional rival Saudi Arabia sent troops into Bahrain to help quell the uprising.

Marzooq acknowledges the difficulty in justifying Al Wefaq’s participation to ordinary Bahrainis. “The people are fed up. We took a very brave decision to enter the dialogue while most of our people they don't believe in this dialogue,” he says. “It’s too hard for you, if you are not convinced, to try to convince someone.”

But even as the national dialogue is ongoing, so is the government’s crackdown on those who supported the uprising, and more widely, the nation’s majority Shiite population. Hundreds of the more than 1,000 people who were arrested during and after the uprising remain in prison, some awaiting military trials with little access to lawyers or family.

Protests in Shiite villages continue, says Nabeel Rajab, head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. Security forces continue to disperse the protests using tear gas, rubber bullets, and shotguns loaded with bird shot, but arrests have decreased. Protesters are more often now beaten and left in the street.

Also ongoing are the firings of Shiite employees who participated in or supported the uprising, mostly from government-owned companies or government institutions. “There is real sectarian cleansing in government institutions,” says Mr. Rajab. Human Rights Watch said Thursday that more than 2,000 people have been fired since late March, violating both Bahraini labor laws and international standards.

Yet one development that has observers in and outside Bahrain cautiously hopeful is the king’s appointment of an independent fact-finding commission to investigate the alleged abuses that occurred on both sides during the crackdown, in which about 30 people were killed. The five-person panel includes respected international figures, buoying hope it will conduct a real and wide-ranging investigation.

But some worry that because the panel was appointed by the king, he is under no obligation to accept its findings, particularly if they implicate senior government officials.

Marzooq worries that there is no guarantee of the safety of those who implicate senior officials. And while he and others look forward to the commission’s report, expected to come in October, no one expects it to solve Bahrain’s problems. “There are deep-rooted structural, sectarian, political and economic problems, and I don't think the commission has the authority to investigate those kinds of things,” says Jones.

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