MANAMA (Reuters) - A top Bahraini Shi‘ite cleric said on Friday that a national dialogue due to start next week looked set to fail, as the opposition nursed “pain and suffering” from the jailing of protesters.
Bahrain has tried dozens of people by military court in the wake of a fierce March crackdown by its Sunni rulers on mass protests led mostly by the Shi‘ite majority. Hundreds, mostly Shi‘ites, were arrested and many have yet to be charged.
Sheikh Issa Qasim, the most revered Shi‘ite cleric in the Gulf island kingdom, told the audience crammed into his village mosque that conditions for the talks due to start next Friday were not promising.
“This dialogue says for itself it is a failure ... It is difficult to reconcile what is happening on the ground with the call to dialogue.”
The criticism came less than a day after Bahrain’s military court said it would move all the protest-linked trials it had not started to a civilian court.
The Ministry of Human Rights and Social Development said the move created the right atmosphere before the national dialogue between the government and opposition.
Opposition groups have said at least 400 people have been put on trial at military courts, but the government says the number is far smaller. It is not clear how many cases will be transferred to civilian courts.
“It is not just a positive step, it is a corrective step,” said Sayed al-Mousawi, from the leading Shi‘ite opposition group Wefaq. “But what we really want is for them to stop all of the trials completely. They are not real cases, they are fabricated.”
The trials have stoked tensions in the Shi‘ite villages ringing the capital, where protests have erupted daily since emergency law was lifted on June 1.
Rights groups and the United Nations have condemned recent military trials, which have already sentenced at least 100. The U.N.’s human rights office on Friday said the trials bore the marks of ”political persecution.
In his sermon, Qasim pointed to a military court’s sentencing of eight prominent Shi‘ite opposition leaders and activists to life in prison on Wednesday, and a term of five years handed out to Ibrahim Sharif, a Sunni opposition leader from the leftist Waad party.
“We are all feeling pain, suffering and a sense of depression from the sentencing,” the cleric said.
Activists have called for more protests later on Friday.
A government statement released on Friday defended the sentencing in which 21 people in total were given prison terms ranging from two years to life in prison.
“They conspired with foreign terrorist organisations and attacked state police,” said Nawaf Almuawdah, of the Information Affairs Authority. “No sovereign country can be expected to tolerate violence against the government.”
Bahraini forces, backed by troops from neighbouring Sunni-led Gulf countries, crushed weeks of pro-democracy protests in March. The government says the demonstrators had a sectarian agenda with backing from Shi‘ite power Iran, charges the opposition denies.