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Mon 25 Jul 2011 06:38 PM

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Bahrain talks propose stronger parliament

Participants in national dialogue suggest expanding powers of the kingdom's elected parliament

Bahrain talks propose stronger parliament
Protester generic

Participants in a Bahraini national dialogue, set up to address grievances after protests earlier this year, have proposed expanding the powers of the Gulf kingdom's elected parliament, the state news agency said.

The talks, which ended on Sunday, were designed to propose reforms after a four-month crackdown by Sunni rulers that began in March and crushed weeks of protests led by the Shi'ite majority demanding a greater role in government.

But critics say the results of the dialogue may carry little weight since the country's largest Shi'ite opposition group, Wefaq, walked out of the dialogue last week.

Delegates at the dialogue's final session agreed to give Bahrain's elected lower council greater legislative and monitoring powers, the state news agency BNA said. The opposition has complained that the upper Shura council, which is appointed by the king, limits the influence of the elected parliament.

"Overall, these decisions reinforce the parliament's powers of scrutiny over the activities of the government, strengthening the accountability of ministers to the elected representatives of the people," BNA said.

No information was given on exactly how the parliament would extend monitoring authorities or wield greater legislative powers, but dialogue officials said the proposals would be submitted to the king this week.

Wefaq pulled out of the talks last Sunday, complaining that its views were not being taken seriously and that it was not fairly represented. It has criticised dialogue officials for only giving political opposition groups 35 out of 300 seats at the talks.

The government said it distributed seats in a way that fairly represented all of Bahraini society, including delegates from the government, opposition groups, unions, women's societies and other professionals.

Bahrain has tried to address international criticism, including from its long-time US ally, for its handling of the crackdown.

But Wefaq has argued the talks were just for show.

"The dialogue is clearly theatre, the goal of which was to market a particular dish... What came out of the official media on the dialogue exposes lies and deceit," Wefaq official Sayed Hadi al-Mousawi said at a news conference on Sunday, according to the group's Twitter feed.

Bahraini officials accuse Wefaq and other Shi'ite opposition leaders of a sectarian agenda backed by non-Arab Shi'ite power Iran, just across Gulf waters. The opposition denies this.

Bahrain, home port to the US Fifth Fleet, is seen as a fault line for tensions between Shi'ite power Iran and Sunni Gulf Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, both of which sent troops to shore up the Bahraini government's crackdown on protests.