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Wed 15 Jun 2011 09:38 PM

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United States urges dialogue amid Bahrain tensions

US Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner calls for transparency during visit to Gulf kingdom

United States urges dialogue amid Bahrain tensions
Protester generic

The United States said on Wednesday tensions in Bahrain were very high ahead of a planned national dialogue after weeks of pro-democracy protests and urged the authorities to encourage people to speak out.

US Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner, visiting the Bahraini capital, said Washington remained concerned about the detention of Bahrainis without charge and reports of torture during interrogations.

Speaking in Manama, he voiced support for the dialogue proposed by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa but called for transparency during the forthcoming trials of dozens of people charged with illegal activities during this year's protests.

"We are concerned that the environment be such that every effort be made to encourage participants in the political public process to express their views ... and that people not be punished for expressing those views," he told a news conference.

"There are clearly very high emotions," Posner said after meeting high-ranking officials and opposition leaders.

Bahrain, which hosts the US Navy's regionally strategic Fifth Fleet, quashed weeks of protests in March. It called in troops from neighbouring Gulf Arab countries and imposed emergency law, which it lifted just last week.

Posner, who spent four days in Bahrain, attended the trial on Monday of 48 doctors facing charges ranging from incitement, to storing weapons, to taking over a hospital.

Some of the defendants tried to speak about being tortured into confessions when they pleaded not guilty, but were silenced by the judge.

The government has vowed to investigate claims of torture, and Posner said they reiterated these promises in meetings.

When asked if he discussed a request by the doctors' lawyers that their defendants be investigated by independent doctors, not military ones, Posner replied: "Those details were part of our discussion, I can't say there's a definitive answer."

Most of the doctors on trial are in detention and rights groups say hundreds more are in police custody without charge.

"We remain concerned about the continued detention of a number of Bahrainis who have neither been charged nor tried, about the treatment of those people in detention, and about reports that some have been subjected to physical abuse during interrogations," Posner told journalists.

The US role in Bahrain has become a point of contention in Bahraini media, as opposition figures look for stronger support from the United States ahead of planned dialogue in July, and government supporters appear wary of U.S. involvement.

The king wants the national dialogue to start in July and has promised that all subjects would be on the table. Posner urged all sides to embrace the talks.

"I'm cautiously optimistic here," he said. "I think there's room for a very constructive process. But it's going to require energy both on the part of the government and the opposition to make it work."

Posner, who said he was one of several senior US officials who had visited Bahrain and that more were to come, said Washington was committed to its Gulf Arab ally's stability and wanted to ensure it took steps to heal divisions that sparked some of the worst unrest in the tiny island kingdom's history.

"We're going to stay the course and continue to raise our concerns in a constructive way and encourage all parties to participate in this process of reconciliation," he said.

Bahrain's Sunni rulers have said the pro-democracy protests, led mostly by the country's Shi'ite majority, had a sectarian agenda backed by Shi'ite power Iran.

Pro-government media often carry stories implying the opposition's leaders take orders from Iran.

The opposition denies these charges, and has accused the government of taking revenge on them through widespread detentions and dismissals, mainly of Shi'ites. Recently, the government began releasing some detainees and has reinstated the jobs of 571 workers.