Bahrain Crown Prince calls for talks with opposition

MANAMA Sat Dec 8, 2012 11:35am GMT

MANAMA (Reuters) - Bahrain's Crown Prince called for dialogue with the country's opposition to break a deadlock in the restive Gulf Arab state, an appeal met with scepticism by rights activists.

The ruling Al-Khalifa family, who are Sunni Muslims, used martial law and help from Gulf neighbours to put down a revolt in March last year against alleged discrimination of Bahrain's majority Shi'ite Muslim population, but violence has resumed.

Protesters and police clash almost daily and the island has seen bombings this year. Demonstrations are banned.

Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifah, who was seen as losing influence to hardliners in the ruling family during mass protests last year, said Bahrain must continue political and judicial reforms.

"I call for a meeting between all sides, as I believe that only through face-to-face dialogue will any real progress be made," he said late on Friday in an address to a conference on Middle East security organised by the International Institute for Security Studies.

No opposition figures were invited to the conference.

"We know dialogue would help solve the problems in Bahrain, but we don't see any positive messages from the authorities," said Mohammed al-Maskati, head of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights.

"The repression is ongoing, people are facing unfair trials, activists are in jail... You have to ask - if he is serious, why doesn't he make this address at a national level? It's just propaganda by the authorities," he said.

Bahrain, where the U.S. Fifth Fleet is based as a bulwark against Iran, accuses Tehran of encouraging the unrest and has promised a tough response as talks with the opposition have stalled. Iran, which is led by Shi'ite clerics, has denied meddling in Bahrain's affairs.

An opposition group held a peaceful protest in the capital Manama on Friday despite the ban on demonstrations.

In his speech, Crown Prince Salman urged all political figures to condemn street violence but also said the government needed to push harder to reduce inequality.

"We must do more to change laws which still can lead to, in my opinion, judgements which go against protections guaranteed in our constitution. We must do more to stop the selective enforcement of law," he said.

The conference was attended by British Foreign Secretary William Hague, U.S. Assistant Secretary for State William Burns and the foreign ministers of other Gulf Arab states.

Crown Prince Salman singled out Britain for particular praise for its support for Bahrain during its crisis but did not mention the United States in what delegates present at the conference saw as implied criticism of Washington.

"You have stood head and shoulders above others," he said of the British government, which he praised for engaging with both the Bahraini government and opposition and aiding reform of the police and judiciary.

Last month, U.S. officials voiced concern that Bahrain's failure to implement reforms outlined in an independent 2011 report was making political dialogue more difficult and widening fissures in society in ways that would benefit Iran.

Appearing at the conference on Saturday, Bahrain's foreign minister denied the crown prince had deliberately left out the United States.

"Our Royal Highness thanked our friends in the West. He did not exclude anyone," Khalid Bin Ahmed Bin Mohammed al-Khalifa said.

But for some rights groups, Washington has not been outspoken enough. Amnesty International said in a statement that the United States should use the conference to "hold Bahrain's ruling family to account for its escalating crackdown on dissent and continued repudiation of human rights standards."

The rights watchdog accused Washington of prioritising its military ties with Bahrain over "the basic freedoms and rights of Bahrain's citizens."

(Additional reporting by Raissa Kasolowsky in Abu Dhabi; Editing by Tom Pfeiffer)

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