Bahrain's Government Must Stop Killing Its People, and Listen to Them

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The Guardian/UK

Bahrain's Government Must Stop Killing Its People, and Listen to Them

We in al-Wefaq want only a genuinely democratic constitutional monarchy built on dialogue, not weapons

When 100,000 or more people take to the streets in protest, governments in most parts of the world would see it as a sign that they need to change course – especially in a country with only about 600,000 citizens.

But Bahrain is no ordinary country. Its prime minister, Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, has been in office for more than 40 years and his nephew, King Hamad, insists there is no opposition as such: "We only have people with different views… and now they are talking with their brothers."

So far, though, there has been no move towards serious dialogue, instead just a campaign of repression that has claimed at least 80 lives and created hundreds of political prisoners.

We in the opposition have reiterated time and again our calls for "meaningful dialogue", as President Obama put it. We stand ready to move the country forward towards a democratic future, but the only engagement from the authorities has been violence, not discussion.

Rather than address our demands, the government has resorted to peddling lies to discredit our movement internationally – a strategy it has used since day one of this crisis, which shows its complete refusal to reform. Last October we published The Manama Document to show our roadmap to reform. The government has ignored this and we have received no official response.

Al-Wefaq is the largest political party in Bahrain and indeed one of the most successful groupings across the Gulf region. Our demands do not extend beyond a genuinely democratic constitutional monarchy. We can envisage a place for the monarchy in the future of Bahrain, but we can no longer accept a future for dictatorship.

We call for a democratically elected government, a fully representative parliament with full authority, separation of powers and equality for all under the law. It's dictatorship we want to dismantle, not the state.

Last November, the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry proved that the government was guilty of "excessive force" in its crackdown against protesters. It showed clearly that the authorities in Bahrain were guilty of killings, torture and other gross rights violations.

Since this report, these abuses have continued because no political changes have been made. They are the direct result of an unaccountable political system that grants impunity to all those guilty of crimes against humanity, from top to bottom. Only genuine political reform will end this cycle of violence.

While some democratic uprisings over the past year have received support from other countries, the international community has been reluctant to stand with the people of Bahrain. We find ourselves in the crossfire of tensions between Iran and the west, with pro-government Bahrainis accusing Iran of supporting the opposition.

Unequivocally and in no uncertain terms, we reject all foreign interference in Bahrain, whether from Iran or Saudi Arabia (which one year ago sent troops into our country to help crush our dreams of freedom). Our demands are national and we model our future society on the democracies of Westminster, Washington and other liberal modern states.

This tactic of the regime is to attempt to stir sectarian tensions and turn political issues into religious ones. It is truly disgraceful that our government openly seeks to divide the country on sectarian lines, as a means to retain power.

Sunnis and Shia, Muslims and non-Muslims can stand together, with mutual respect and equality under Bahraini law. The divide in Bahrain is not between religious sects. A majority of the country, from all backgrounds including some inside the royal family, stand for democracy and freedom while a small minority who benefit from the status quo stand in the camp of totalitarianism.

Sadly, as time passes without a conclusion to the crisis, the government's attempts to pit countryman against countryman are beginning to take effect. Just this weekend, a 22-year-old citizen journalist died after being shot from a civilian car during a peaceful protest.

Al-Wefaq is committed to peaceful protest and will always maintain this principle; it has been the strongest characteristic of our revolution. We want to build our future on peace not war, on dialogue not weapons.

But in the face of ongoing state brutality and no end to the crisis, extremists on both sides will become emboldened. This is our major fear, but something the government seems perfectly happy to accept as an alternative to reform. It seems there are some sections of the royal family who would rather watch the country burn than relinquish some of its unwarranted power, influence and position.

This is why Bahrain needs a solution. The current political stalemate is not in the interests of the people, the west or indeed the country as a whole.

For us in al-Wefaq, the solution is a meaningful and genuine dialogue towards a democratic future. We are open to compromise and debate, but the daily violations against the people must stop immediately.

We have shown our own commitment to moving the country forward. Now the authorities must lay down their weapons, stop killing people in the streets and show the same commitment.

Those in the west who want to see a world of stable democracies should recognise this and push for this logical conclusion.

In February and March 2011 we built a miniature democratic society in Pearl Square. For the first time our people felt what it was like to be free, although it was short lived and ended savagely.

As one protester interviewed for al-Jazeera's documentary, Shouting in the Dark, said: "We have touched the soul of freedom, we can't go back now."

Ali Alaswad

Ali Alaswad was elected to Bahrain's parliament in October 2010, but resigned in February 2011 in response to the Governments' crackdown on peaceful democracy protesters. After his home was targeted by security forces, he left Bahrain and now resides in London where he continues his political work to achieve a democratic Bahrain

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