February 26, 2011 / 8:22 AM / 8 years ago

Bahrain Shi'ite opposition leader to fly home

MANAMA (Reuters) - A hardline Shi’ite dissident was due to fly home to Bahrain from exile on Saturday to join an opposition movement demanding that the island kingdom’s Sunni rulers accept a more democratic system.

Hassan Mushaimaa, London-based leader of the Shi’ite Haq movement, had originally planned to return last Monday after a week of protests to test a dialogue offer by the king.

But Lebanese authorities seized his passport during a stopover in Beirut on Tuesday, saying his name was on an international arrest warrant.

“His passport has been given back to him and he’s bought a ticket. He will land in Bahrain at 3 p.m.,” Abbas al-Amran, a friend of Mushaimaa, told Reuters.

Letting Mushaimaa back unhindered would be the latest in a series of concessions by the ruling al-Khalifa family aimed at calming Bahrain’s majority Shi’ites who have been at the forefront of protests demanding more say in government.

Bahrain’s foreign minister said on Thursday that Mushaimaa, who was among 25 people charged over an alleged coup plot and who was being tried in absentia, had been pardoned and would be allowed to return home to join a national dialogue.

Tens of thousands thronged the streets of Manama again on Friday, declared a day of mourning by the government, in one of the biggest demonstrations since unrest erupted 10 days earlier.

Security forces did not interfere. Last week seven people were killed and hundreds wounded in unrest before Bahraini rulers, under pressure from their Western allies, pledged to allow peaceful protests and offered dialogue with opponents.

This week the government released more than 300 people detained since a crackdown on Shi’ite unrest in August.

SOP TO OPPOSITION

Government officials said the cabinet had been reshuffled in what was seen as another sop to the opposition.

The ministers of housing, health and cabinet affairs were among those fired, said the officials, who asked not to be named because they had not been formally notified of the changes.

A limited cabinet reshuffle seems unlikely to placate protesters energised by popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere. One of their main demands is the resignation of the king’s uncle, Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, prime minister since Bahrain’s independence from Britain in 1971.

Protesters want a constitutional monarchy instead of the existing system where citizens vote for a mostly toothless parliament and policy remains the preserve of an elite centered on the al-Khalifa dynasty that has ruled Bahrain for 200 years.

Mushaimaa’s Haq party is more radical than the Shi’ite Wefaq party, from which it split in 2006 when Wefaq contested a parliamentary election. Haq’s leaders often have been arrested in recent years, only to receive royal pardons.

Thousands of protesters still occupy Pearl Square in central Manama, demanding an elected government under a new constitution. Before the reshuffle, about two thirds of the cabinet, appointed by the king, were members of his family.

Opposition groups such as Wefaq want to see a commitment to an elected government before they enter any dialogue.

Replacing the ministers of health and housing could be a nod to Shi’ites who have long complained of discrimination in public services — complaints the government says are unjustified.

One government source said Labor Minister Majeed al-Alawi, a former opposition activist, could become housing minister.

Nazar al-Baharna, minister of state for foreign affairs and one of the highest-ranking Shi’ite government officials, could take the health portfolio, the source added. Sheikh Ahmed bin Attiatullah al-Khalifa, minister for cabinet affairs, was also likely to be replaced the source said.

Shi’ites have linked him to an alleged government plan leaked in 2006 to alter Bahrain’s sectarian balance in favor of Sunnis.The government has denied there was such a plan.

Government loyalists, who have also taken to the streets in tens of thousands this week, say reforms launched by the king a decade ago brought democratic freedoms rare in the Gulf.

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