Talks between Bahrain’s Sunni rulers and opposition leaders started Saturday following pro-democracy demonstrations by majority Shi’ites and the government’s resulting crackdown against protesters earlier this year.
Saturday’s talks were mostly ceremonial, and some members of the opposition voiced skepticism about whether the national dialogue decreed by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa will accomplish anything.
The island nation’s largest Shi’ite opposition party, Wefaq, decided at the last minute to attend Saturday’s event. The party had expressed concern that a national dialogue would not be credible if the government continued to keep key opposition figures jailed. All 18 lawmakers from the Wefaq party also had resigned from the 40-member lower house of parliament in March in response to the political violence.
In a statement Saturday, the U.S. State Department welcomed Wefaq’s decision to join the king’s national dialogue, saying the group’s participation added “an important voice” to a process that has the potential to serve as a vehicle for reform and reconciliation.
The Bahraini government has said the talks will cover politics, the economy and human rights.
Earlier this week, Bahrain’s king announced that an independent commission would be formed to investigate possible rights violations during recent demonstrations.
King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa said in a televised speech to the nation that Bahraini leaders respect human rights and want reform. But he said protesters pushed the Gulf nation into a “state of chaos” that led to a government backlash of arrests and trials.