MANAMA (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Bahrainis shouting “one man, one vote” attended a rally for political reform held by a leading opposition party Friday, days before the group decide whether to pull out of national reform talks.
Bahrain’s Sunni rulers have launched a national dialogue to discuss reforms and heal deep rifts in the Gulf island kingdom after ending a four-month crackdown on weeks of protests led by the Shi‘ite majority early this year.
Waving Bahraini flags and raising their hands, some 30,000 people gathered to hear a speech by Sheikh Ali Salman, head of the largest Shi‘ite opposition group Wefaq. He said the group would decide Sunday whether to withdraw and called for reforms to ensure the people had a greater say in government.
“The real victory is reaching a national consensus on serious democratic reforms that meet popular demands for justice and produce security, stability and growth,” he said, to the cheers of crowds who spilt into alleyways and climbed onto rooftops.
Thousands of Bahraini Shi‘ites joined demonstrations in February and March to demand democratic reforms of Bahrain’s constitutional monarchy -- prompting Sunni-led Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates to send troops to back the government’s suppression of the protests.
Hundreds of people, mostly Shi‘ites, were arrested and up to 2,000 were sacked from their jobs. U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on Bahrain Friday to investigate the dismissals, which it said might have been punishment for joining protests.
Bahrain announced last month that it would cancel 571 dismissals, but activists say those workers have yet to be given back their jobs.
Bahraini Shi‘ites had long complained that the government discriminated against them in jobs and services, and accused the state of gerrymandering voting districts to limit their part in governing the country.
Some Sunnis say they share Shi‘ites’ economic grievances, and the government promised that all types of reform were on the table at the national dialogue which began two weeks ago.
Opposition groups complain they will never be able to have their proposed political reforms put into effect because they have only 35 of the 300 seats at the talks.
The government has defended its apportioning of seats, saying it wanted the talks to include all Bahrainis, whether they were involved in politics or not.
Bahraini Shi‘ites are still seething after the crackdown, and protests erupt daily in villages ringing the capital, while convoys of riot police cars drive from one village to another firing stun grenades, rubber bullets and tear gas.
Hardliners who want to abolish the monarchy in favour of a republic have gained some ground among those Shi‘ites who feel moderates like Wefaq have yet to achieve any reforms by taking a more conciliatory tone.
Wefaq delegates walked out of a national dialogue session Tuesday after one Sunni parliamentarian used a derogatory term to describe Shi‘ites. Hours later, they told their group’s secretary general they wanted to pull out of the talks.
The government has vowed to carry on with the reform dialogue even if Wefaq withdraws, but the loss of the largest opposition group would damage the chances of gaining national consensus amid continuing sectarianism.
Bahraini officials accuse Wefaq and other Shi‘ite opposition leaders of a sectarian agenda and of receiving backing from non-Arab Shi‘ite power Iran, just across the Gulf. The opposition denies this.
“We are not for the downfall of the regime, we are for reforming it,” Salman told supporters Friday, prompting some hardliners to leave in disappointment.
“But let us be clear, our demands are for deep-rooted democratic reform,” Salman said.
Writing by Erika Solomon; editing by Tim Pearce