INTERVIEW-Bahrain Shi'ite leader says backs royal family

Sun May 29, 2011 5:39pm GMT
 

* Shi'ite party says backs royal family, seeks reform

* Leader says anger over protests does not justify crackdown

By Andrew Hammond

MANAMA, May 29 (Reuters) - The leader of Bahrain's main Shi'ite opposition party said on Sunday his goal was to help bring political reform, rejecting accusations of taking orders from Iran or seeking to install Shi'ite religious rule.

Sheikh Ali Salman, head of the opposition group Wefaq, said his party supported the Al Khalifa family as rulers and wanted to help the government with constitutional reforms.

"We said we want a constitutional monarchy, not a republic. We are for a gradual move to a democratic system, so we are not against the ruling family," Salman told Reuters in an interview.

"We have national demands that have nothing to do with Iran. We are proud of being a sensible, mature and progressive political movement that doesn't need to take instructions from Iran or any other country."

Bahrain brought in Saudi and United Arab Emirates forces in March to help break up a democracy movement inspired by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. At least 29 people were killed in the unrest, all but six of them Shi'ites.

Since then, dozens of Shi'ite places of worship have been demolished, four people have died in custody and two Bahraini journalists working for foreign media were beaten last week.

Twenty-one opposition figures -- seven of whom are abroad -- are now on military trial on charges of seeking to overthrow the system and rights activists say they were tortured.

Many belong to Shi'ite groups that called for replacing the monarchy with a republic but Salman said Wefaq was not one of them and no Wefaq figures were on trial.

He said that in indirect talks with the government up to the day Saudi troops came, Wefaq's aim was to rea6ch an agreement on elections for an assembly to approve a new constitution ending the domination of royal appointees in parliament.

Sheikh Abdullatif Al-Mahmoud, head of the mainly Sunni National Unity Rally, has accused Wefaq of taking orders from Iran. He has said Wefaq needed to find new leadership, calling its current political programme a threat to Sunnis.

Salman said however that Sunni fears of being marginalised in a democratic Bahrain did not justify the crackdown.

"There is no understandable reason except anger that gave way to revenge against Shi'ites and Sunnis who stood with their demands. There is no justification in my view for people in the state to commit these wide violations of human rights," he said.

"Thousands of detainees, thousands of people fired from work, attacking mosques, insulting thousands at checkpoints and investigation committees in ministries."

The opposition says the National Unity Rally is a front for hardliners in government and their allies in the Saudi monarchy who do not want democracy to develop in the Gulf region.

The government says accusations of abuse are being investigated and are not state policy.

Salman said he hoped some form of dialogue could be restarted soon. He said a recent statement from Crown Prince Salman -- with whom he had one-on-one meetings during the unrest -- held out hope for reforms.

"In the coming days I want to try to create a political consensus that makes Bahrain politically stable, which will help security and economy," he said. "That's what I'm trying to do but I don't know what will the results be, I'm not the only one in the arena." (Editing by Maria Golovnina)

 
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