The national dialogue forum Salman is referring to starts on Saturday. It is aiming to attract 300 participants bringing together the full spectrum of Bahrain’s political, social, economic and rights groups. According to Dubai’s Gulf News (which is distributed in Bahrain), the participation rate of invitees is 94 percent. But Al Wefaq was the big undecided group to now suspicious that the wide variety of issues on the table would diminish the chances of agreeing on real democratisation. It was also invited to choose only five representatives out of 300 total delegates.
This is despite Al Wefaq being Bahrain’s largest party winning 18 of the 40 seats in last year’s parliamentary election. However they are regularly outvoted by a bloc of Sunni parties and independents. In February, All 18 Al Wefaq MPs resigned after seven people were killed by security forces in the battle for Pearl Roundabout (now razed and known as Al Farooq junction). The Government crushed the rebellion in March with the aid of troops from Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
On 1 June 1, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa announced the lifting of a “state of national safety” he had decreed and offered talks. Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Khalifa went to the Oval Office a week later to meet President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton to seek support for the national dialogue. Bahrain is home to the US Fifth Fleet so the US has been cautious about overtly attacking the regime despite condemning the security crackdown. The State Department formally welcomed the talks on 15 June. However Assistant Secretary Michael Posner told his Bahraini hosts that meaningful dialogue could only take place “in a climate of respect for the freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly.”
This was a veiled reference to the many trials and military court proceedings initiated by the government to deal with 500 people arrested since the February protest. On Monday Bahrain launched a mass trial of 28 doctors and nurses accused of joining the protests and spreading “false information” which is code for speaking to foreign media. Another 20 doctors and nurses are accused of alleged anti-state plots. On 22 June, a special security court in Bahrain sentenced eight activists and opposition leaders to life in prison on charges of “plotting to overthrow the government”.
Meanwhile a special military court called the Court of National Safety came into being on 12 June to hold politically motivated cases against opposition members of parliament and a prominent defence lawyer. According to Amnesty International the courts were put in place in response to the protests and are presided by one military and two civilian judges. The court sentenced a young female activist to a year in prison for charges related to her public recital of a poem critical of Bahrain’s King.
Two Al Wefaq MPs are also among those arrested and kept in secret solitary confinement. There was no legal representation or family present. Human Rights Watch has called on Bahrain to end the proceedings. “Most defendants hauled before Bahrain’s special military court are facing blatantly political charges, and trials are unfair,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The Crown Prince may be sincere in his efforts to promote dialogue, but what good is that while back home the government is crushing peaceful dissent and locking up people who should be part of the dialogue.”