Obama urges Bahrain hold rights abusers accountable

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Barack Obama on Tuesday urged Bahrain’s rulers to hold accountable those responsible for human rights abuses in a crackdown on pro-democracy protests and pressed for compromise between the government and the opposition.

Obama, in a White House meeting with Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, voiced support for moves toward a national dialogue and insisted the stability of the Gulf kingdom “depends upon respect for universal human rights,” the White House said.

The meeting came after King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, whose Sunni Muslim family rules over the majority Shi’ite population, offered on May 31 to open a dialogue on reform and on June 1 lifted a state of emergency used to break up protests inspired by uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world.

Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, called in security forces from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab countries in March to quash the demonstrations, accusing the protesters of having a sectarian agenda and help from Shi’ite power Iran. The opposition deny this.

Critics have said the United States and other Western nations reacted too softly to the crackdown in Bahrain, which is seen as a vital U.S. ally facing Iran.

Bahraini Shi’ite clerics accused police on Tuesday of violating religious freedoms by breaking up weekend street festivals by majority Shi’ites that police said activists had turned into political protests against the government.

A White House statement said Obama welcomed the Bahraini king’s decision to end martial law and the announcement that a national dialogue on reform would begin in July. Obama also said, “Both the opposition and the government must compromise to forge a just future for all Bahrainis.”

“The president emphasized the importance of following through on the government’s commitment to ensuring that those responsible for human rights abuses will be held accountable,” the White House said.

Bahraini authorities unleashed a campaign of detention and dismissals during martial law that has affected thousands of people who took part in the protests, most of them Shi’ites. The opposition has expressed fear that repression will continue despite the lifting of the emergency decree.

The crown prince used his Washington visit to repeat his support for reform. “It is a great test but also a great opportunity to drive the nation forward,” he told reporters as he met Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “We are committed to reform in both the political and economic spheres.”