Bahrain’s opposition lists demands as protests rise (Lead)

February 24th, 2011 - 3:52 pm ICT by IANS  

Manama, Feb 24 (IANS) An umbrella group of seven main opposition parties in Bahrain outlined its key demands Thursday as the anti-regime unrest intensified with protesters calling for a nationwide strike and the government’s ouster. The demands by the grouping of seven opposition parties, including major Shia bloc Al-Wefaq as well as secular groups, include introduction of a constitutional monarchy and the dissolution of the current government, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The opposition groups have also asked for release of all political prisoners, electoral reforms, and formation of a new “national salvation” government, along with an independent probe into the deaths of seven protesters since the clashes began more than a week ago.

The mass protest in Bahrain began Feb 14 soon after the successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. The unrest reached the capital Tuesday as protesters camped in the city’s Pearl Square.

Most of the protesters are Shia Muslims who are seeking more rights from the country’s ruling Sunni Muslims.

Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa has freed 308 political prisoners and pardoned two other men who have been in self-imposed exile, in an effort to appease the protesters.

But the king refused to dismiss the government and amend the constitution - the demands which many opposition activists see as a vital pre-condition for a dialogue between the government and the opposition groups.

“We have set Thursday as deadline for the government to resign. And if it fails to resign on that day, we would expand the protest. If they ignore the call of the people, we will have to take further actions, including a nationwide strike to begin next week,” an opposition activist said.

Bahrain’s information ministry said the prisoners released had been “subject to criminal proceedings”, but opposition leaders and human rights activists said they had been incarcerated for political activity, and added that around 300 prisoners remained in jail.

The released prisoners also joined protesters Wednesday, adding to pressure on the overwhelmingly Shia opposition to engage in direct talks with Bahrain’s Sunni rulers.

The seven groups given the task of unifying the opposition’s message have been struggling for four days to coordinate a response to the call for talks.

The fresh list of demands by the opposition risks dividing some moderate opposition grouping that has been charged with articulating the issues, and the protesters encamped on the square, many of whom are calling for sweeping regime change and reject any dialogue with the ruling family.

Many in the opposition cite the need for more concessions from the ruling family in the wake of last week’s violent crackdown left seven people dead and hundreds injured before they agree to direct talks.

Others fear a replay of 2001, when King Hamad pledged to devolve power into a constitutional monarchy but pulled back a year later, leaving the control in the hands of the ruling family.

Despite the differences among the opposition groups, the protest movement appeared to have kept its momentum.

In central Manama, thousands of demonstrators joined freed prisoners, many of whom paraded in pickup trucks, as they headed for the capital city’s Pearl Square, the epicentre of the anti-government demonstrations.

Loudspeakers led the crowds in choruses of “No negotiation with the government” and “Down, down Hamad”, in reference to Bahrain’s ruler.

On Wednesday, tens of thousands of people marched in the biggest anti-government rally since the mass protests erupted in the kingdom last week, and chants of “No Shia, No Sunni, only Bahraini” and “The regime must go” rang through the multitudes tramping across the centre of Manama.

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