DUBAI (Reuters) - Bahraini opposition parties should denounce violence to demonstrate their desire for political progress, a government minister said on Thursday after rare meetings with opponents linked to more than a year of street protests.
Justice Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ali Al Khalifa has met several opposition leaders recently, according to state news agency BNA.
Among the groups represented was the leftist party Waad, whose leader is among 13 men held for leading last year's uprising by demonstrators demanding more democracy.
"They must take clear and definitive positions, without giving any political cover to criminal acts," BNA said, citing Sheikh Khaled, a ruling family member, who called the meeting.
"A clear position would reflect an honest desire for readying the ground for constructive political action."
The justice minister also urged political groups to play a role in "calming the air to realize common understandings on political action".
Bahrain has been in turmoil since protests erupted in February 2011 after revolts in Egypt and Tunisia.
Although the authorities have prevented further mass protests in the capital, unrest has continued as majority Shi'ite Muslims often clash with police in Shi'ite districts.
The royal court minister, seen as a powerful player within the Sunni monarchy, held talks with Wefaq, the main Shi'ite party, earlier this year on ending the conflict, but Wefaq says contacts ended in March.
Opposition groups draw support mainly from among Shi'ites demanding reforms to lessen Al Khalifa domination of political life and end what they say is Shi'ite political and economic marginalization. The government denies the charges.
Each side blames the other for the months of violence.
The government says some 700 policemen have been hurt by youths who attack them with petrol bombs and block roads.
Opposition groups say more than 45 people have died due to clashes since a period of martial law ended in June last year, often after inhaling teargas. The government says many of those deaths were due to previous medical conditions.
An inquiry Bahrain commissioned into the uprising and its aftermath concluded at least five people died under torture in state custody, and recommended Bahrain throw out verdicts a military court issued against people involved in protests.
The country's top appeals court on Wednesday reduced sentences of up to 15 years that the military tribunal had handed down to 11 people accused of attacking a soldier during the upheaval, the government press office said on Thursday.
Waad said it had discussed its demands for political reform with the justice minister, but expressed concern that the government had started the dialogue with a view to gaining a sympathetic hearing at a U.N. human rights council session on Bahrain in Geneva in September.
"He said 'we are serious for a dialogue and we need your opinion on how to start one'," said Radhi al-Musawi, Waad deputy leader who attended the meeting. "We said we need an elected government that reflects popular will and an elected parliament with full legislative power."
Musawi said Waad also raised the issue of treatment of detainees, media freedoms and rehiring of Bahrainis sacked for their role in last year's protests.
BNA did not mention Wefaq, the largest party which has dominated the vote in past parliamentary elections, but Wefaq said it had met the justice minister on Wednesday.
"The meeting had nothing to deal with the dialogue nor with resolving the political crisis in Bahrain, as explicitly declared by the minister in the meeting, nor he was mandated to do so as he clarified," it said, suggesting the government organized the meetings as "public relations exercises".
The opposition parties agreed in October on demands for political reforms in a charter named the Manama Document.
Bahrain, urged by Washington to engage in dialogue, has been caught up in rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Manama is host to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, which aims to ensure the free flow of oil in the Gulf. Tehran has threatened to stop oil shipping if a standoff with the United States over its disputed nuclear program deteriorates.
Since June the government has banned a number of Wefaq rallies, saying they block traffic and lead to violence. Wefaq says this is an attempt to crush all forms of street protest.
(Writing by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Sami Aboudi and Alistair Lyon)