DUBAI (Reuters) - Bahrain’s king announced constitutional amendments on Sunday giving parliament more powers of scrutiny over government, but the opposition said they fell far short of demands for democracy that have driven a year of unrest in the Gulf Arab state.
The speech did not mention clashes between riot police and mainly Shi‘ite opposition activists that have taken place on an almost daily basis since martial law was lifted in May after the Sunni-dominated government crushed a pro-democracy uprising.
The island nation, home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, is seen by the United States and Saudi Arabia as a key ally against non-Arab Shi‘ite power Iran just across Gulf waters.
The amendments, which increase powers to question and remove ministers and withdraw confidence in the cabinet, emerged from a national dialogue King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa organized last year after the uprising.
The main opposition party Wefaq withdrew from the dialogue, saying it did not go far enough to offer real reform.
The king, in a televised speech said: ”Our people have proven their desire for continuing with reforms... We complete the march today with those who have an honest patriotic desire for more progress and reform.
“I must mention here that democracy is not just constitutional and legislative rules, it is a culture and practice and adhering by the law and respecting international human rights principles,” he said.
“I beseech all sectors of society to work together so that all their sons adhere to the law...”
The cabinet is headed by the same prime minister from the royal family who was appointed when Bahrain emerged from colonial tutelage in 1971. The elected parliament’s powers to legislate are neutralized by an appointed chamber.
Activists were scathing about the speech, which comes after a number of deaths in recent weeks resulting from the tense security situation. They said King Hamad -- widely popular when he came to power promising democratic changes in 1999 -- seemed out of touch with reality.
A 24-year-old Shi‘ite man was found dead after he went missing last Wednesday. The Bahrain Centre for Human Rights said his body showed signs of torture, but the Interior Ministry said he suffered from psychological problems and had drowned.
A Shi‘ite woman, Badriya Ali, 59, died after setting herself alight on Friday. Her family say she was depressed after her son was forcibly seized from her home and held for five months last year. Police said she was being treated in a psychiatric hospital after several suicide attempts.
A woman from the village of Barbar died from tear gas inhalation on Saturday night, activists said, taking their figure for the total number of deaths since the protests took off last year to around 60.
“Shoes are being thrown at your face (on TV), you lowest of kings in the depths of hell!” wrote a Twitter user called ‘Sanabis News’, the name referring to a Shi‘ite district where police and youths clash daily. A YouTube video showed a poster of the king pelted with shoes in another Shi‘ite area.
“This reflects a denial of the demands for better representation for Bahrainis and a fair judiciary,” said Wefaq official Matar Matar, noting the reforms could have been effected via legislation rather than constitutional changes.
“It ignores previous promises from the crown prince on a government that represents the people.”
Tensions are set to rise ahead of February 14, the anniversary of the uprising last year after Egyptians and Tunisians succeeded in forcing out unpopular leaders. Once a thriving tourism and banking hub, the island’s economy has taken a hit as the standoff between the government and opposition drags on.
Analysts say hardliners within the Khalifa family, backed by Saudi Arabia, have the upper hand and reject further reforms.
Writing by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Rosalind Russell