June 17, 2011 / 2:22 PM / 8 years ago

Bahrain Shi'ite cleric says cosmetic reform not enough

MANAMA, June 17 (Reuters) - An influential Bahraini Shi’ite cleric warned Friday that merely “cosmetic reform” would not satisfy people who joined a wave of protests quashed by security forces in March.

An anti-government protester stands on a roadblock used to prevent riot police from entering the area as he calls for afternoon prayers at the junction of Bahrain Financial Harbour in Manama March 14, 2011. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed/Files

King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa has said a national dialogue will start on July 1. Officials say it will discuss democratic reforms in the country, which they describe as returning to stability after three months of emergency law, lifted two weeks ago.

Sheikh Issa Qasim, a spiritual leader of Bahrain’s majority Shi’ite population, told crowds packed into the small Diraz mosque they should remain peaceful in their calls for democratic reform but said they should not let go of their demands.

“It is not reasonable and one should not be deluded into thinking the people, after much fatigue, suffering, and the dearest of sacrifices, will accept coming up empty-handed,” he said. Dozens died in the unrest.

“The people did not mobilise in order to receive cosmetic reforms,” he added, as the audience shouted: “No more humiliation.”

The Sunni rulers of Bahrain, where the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet is based, crushed weeks of pro-democracy protests mostly joined by Shi’ites, accusing them of a sectarian agenda with backing from Shi’ite power Iran.

The opposition says the charges are intended to distract Arab states and Bahrain’s U.S. allies from its political demands such as more representative elections. Some activists have called for the abolition of the monarchy.

Bahrain invited troops from neighboring Sunni Gulf countries to help crush the protests, and arrested hundreds. At least a hundred people are on trial, and Human Rights Watch says 87 have been sentenced, with five acquitted.

The government says the accused are a small minority of protesters who committed serious crimes, with charges ranging from incitement to illegal gathering to killing a policeman, for which two have been sentenced to death.

Sheikh Issa’s speech came hours before a planned rally by the leading Shi’ite opposition group Wefaq, which is expected to draw a large turnout. The opposition demands the release of detainees and a halt to the dismissals of students and workers before the talks.

Reporting by Erika Solomon; editing by Andrew Roche

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