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Bahrain says to start talks, drop charges for some medics
DUBAI (Reuters) - An adviser to Bahrain's King Hamad said the Gulf Arab state would hold a "comprehensive dialogue" soon to end a year-long political crisis and the government said it was dropping charges against most medics in a controversial trial.
The U.S. ally, home to Washington's Fifth Fleet, has been in turmoil since democracy protests erupted last year only to be crushed by force one month later. Manama has faced international pressure to redress abuse suffered by majority Shi'ite Muslims during its crackdown and start political reforms.
The comments by Nabeel Al-Hamer, the king's media adviser, were published by the state news agency late on Friday, after a prominent Shi'ite cleric led the biggest pro-democracy demonstration since the uprising took off in February 2011.
"Al-Hamer said there would soon be a comprehensive dialogue including all elements of Bahraini society and affirmed that everyone wants to end the crisis the country is in," BNA said.
However, a senior figure from the leading Shi'ite opposition party Wefaq said the group was not aware any new talks were planned. "We haven't heard officially from them yet," said Abduljalil Khalil.
In an incident that may complicate efforts to find a compromise, a 22-year-old Shi'ite man, Fadhel Mirza, died on Friday after being struck by a tear gas canister during clashes with police, the opposition Wefaq party said on Saturday. A police statement confirmed his head was struck by a hard object.
After his funeral on Saturday, riot police fired tear gas to clear protesters. Youths responded by throwing petrol bombs in clashes that lasted into the evening.
Shi'ites complain of political marginalisation by the ruling Sunni Muslim Al Khalifa family, something the government denies.
The country's legal opposition parties say they want electoral reform and full legislative powers for the elected parliament and elected government - changes that worry Bahrain's powerful Sunni neighbour Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.
MEDICS' CASE REDUCED
A statement from the public prosecutor said the authorities would pursue criminal charges against only five of 20 medics on trial in a case that has drawn international criticism.
In late September, a military court sentenced the 20 doctors and other medical staff to jail terms of up to 15 years on charges including incitement to overthrow the government and attempting to occupy a hospital, in what critics said was a reprisal for treating mostly Shi'ite protesters during the uprising.
The medics are not in detention and their case was transferred to a civilian court for retrial in October.
"The Public Prosecutor ... has stated he will only be presenting evidence for a small number of accused involved in the most serious criminal violations," a statement said.
"Of the criminal cases involving medical professionals, only five have been accused of serious criminal charges."
It did not name the five medics or say what the charges were. Defending lawyer Mohsen Al-Alawi said the most serious charge still standing is of attempting to occupy a hospital.
The statement said the 15 others would face disciplinary hearings for acts including breaching patient confidentiality by allowing cameras into a hospital, leading political protests inside the hospital, and discriminating against patients based on their sect. The doctors deny these charges.
The statement linked the alleged crimes for which the five medics would face trial to the findings of a commission of international legal experts, whose report in November revealed confessions obtained under torture by detainees and military trial defendants.
The report said rallies inside the Salmaniya medical complex had been disruptive to operations.
Nada Dhaif, who was originally sentenced to 15 years for helping organise a medical tent for protesters, said the government wanted to rid itself of an embarrassing case but keep some "scapegoats".
"There is international pressure since the case is widely seen as nonsense, but local media were saying horrible things about us day and night. Government loyalists have more hate for us than anyone else over the protests," she said.
Figures on state television accused the doctors of such crimes as deliberately worsening patients' injuries before television cameras or causing the deaths of protesters in order to discredit security forces. The accusations were never pressed in court.
Bahrain will be under the spotlight during a Formula One Grand Prix race in late April. U.S. Assistant Secretary Of State Michael Posner said last month the authorities should seek alternatives to criminal prosecution in the case.
HARDLINERS OPPOSE TALKS
Youth activists and dissident groups opposed to the monarchy do not want Wefaq to enter talks with the government.
Pro-government Sunni groups, who accuse the opposition of loyalty to Iran, have also called on the government not to enter into talks. Shi'ites say talk of Iranian links is a familiar charge with no basis that shows a misunderstanding of Shi'ism.
Royal court minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed met with figures from Wefaq and separately with other opposition parties in January and February to sound them out about negotiations.
Activists at Friday's march outside Manama, which drew an estimated 100,000 people, carried banners saying "No dialogue with killers".
They say at least 28 people have died due to heavy policing since martial law ended in June, many from the effects of tear gas. The government has queried the causes of death.
Clashes occur daily between riot police and youths in Shi'ite districts. The government describes the youths, who throw petrol bombs at police, as vandals and says Wefaq should do more to rein them in.
(Writing by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Andrew Roche)
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