MANAMA (Reuters) - A hardline Bahraini opposition figure seeking to return home after a week of anti-government protests is stranded in Beirut after Lebanese authorities seized his passport, a Lebanese judicial source said Thursday.
The Bahraini government, meanwhile, reported progress towards starting a dialogue with the opposition after thousands of mainly Shi’ite protesters took to the streets last week to demand an elected government in the Sunni-led kingdom.
Hassan Mushaimaa, the London-based leader of the Shi’ite Haq movement, had said on his Facebook page that he would fly home last Tuesday to see whether Bahrain’s leadership was serious about dialogue with its opponents or would arrest him.
A Lebanese official said authorities had blocked Mushaimaa from boarding a flight to Manama because his name was on an international arrest warrant. A Lebanese judicial source said Mushaimaa’s passport had been seized, but he was not in custody.
“The Bahraini government has distributed his name to borders in the Arab world,” Abbas al-Amran, a friend of Mushaimaa, told Reuters. “He will not let himself be arrested. He wants to take a plane and come to Bahrain as an ordinary citizen.”
Mushaimaa’s arrival in Bahrain would come at a sensitive time for the Gulf Arab kingdom, where protesters mostly from the island’s Shi’ite majority have set up a tent camp in central Manama’s Pearl Square to demand an elected government.
Security forces killed seven people and wounded hundreds while trying to disperse protests last week before Bahrain, under pressure from its Western allies, pulled back its army and police and allowed peaceful demonstrations in Pearl Square.
The government said 73 officers were also injured.
Mushaimaa is among 25 people charged last year over an alleged coup plot and was being tried in absentia. But the government freed the other defendants Tuesday as one of several gestures to try to defuse anti-government protests that at their height drew tens of thousands.
A statement by King Hamad bin Isa Monday hinted the trial would be shelved, which would let Mushaimaa return unhindered. Lebanese authorities were checking with Bahraini authorities on whether to let him fly to Manama, the Lebanese official said.
Mushaimaa’s Haq party is more radical than the Shi’ite Wefaq party, from which it split in 2006 when Wefaq contested a parliamentary election. Haq’s leaders have often been arrested in recent years, only to receive royal pardons.
Bahrain’s protesters want a constitutional monarchy instead of the existing system where citizens vote for a mostly toothless parliament and policy remains the preserve of a ruling elite centred on the Sunni al-Khalifa dynasty.
Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa has offered dialogue but has yet to persuade the opposition that the government is serious about constitutional reforms. Pro-government supporters have also staged rallies.
“Talks with representatives of Bahrain society and the Crown Prince continue and positive progress is being made towards the commencement of the national dialogue,” a government statement said.
The Shi’ite opposition Wefaq party, however, said there had been “no progress at all.” Former Wefaq lawmaker Ibrahim Mattar said his party wanted a clear commitment to a constitutional monarchy before coming to the table.
The al-Khalifa family, which has ruled Bahrain for 200 years, dominates a cabinet led by the king’s uncle, who has been prime minister for 40 years since independence in 1971.