Freedom in the World 2009


The government of Bahrain continued its crackdown on opponents in 2008. Human rights activists intensified criticisms of the ruling al-Khalifa family amid reports of the use of torture against detainees. In spite of promises that journalists would no longer face imprisonment for their writing, authorities limited free expression, blocked access to websites, and detained authors who criticized state leaders. Tensions between the country’s Shiite majority and the ruling Sunni minority escalated during the year, as the government continued its policy of welcoming Sunni immigrants to alter the demographic balance.

The al-Khalifa family, which belongs to Bahrain’s Sunni Muslim minority, has ruled the Shiite-majority country for more than two centuries. Bahrain gained independence in 1971 after more than a hundred years as a British protectorate. The first constitution provided for a national assembly with both elected and appointed members, but the monarch dissolved the assembly in 1975 for attempting to end al-Khalifa rule.

In 1993, the emir established a consultative council of appointed notables, although this advisory body had no legislative power. In 1994, the arrest of prominent individuals who had petitioned for the reestablishment of democratic institutions sparked protests. The disturbances left more than 40 people dead, thousands arrested, and hundreds either imprisoned or exiled.

Sheikh Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa’s March 1999 accession to the throne marked a turning point. He released political prisoners, permitted the return of exiles, and eliminated emergency laws and courts. He also introduced the National Charter, which aimed to create a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament, an independent judicial branch, and rights guaranteeing women’s political participation.

In February 2001, voters approved the National Charter, and the country was proclaimed a constitutional kingdom the following year. However, the process of political reform had disappointed many Bahrainis by the time local and parliamentary elections were held in May and October 2002, respectively. Leading Shiite groups and leftists boycotted the elections to protest campaigning restrictions and electoral gerrymandering aimed at diminishing the power of the Shiite majority. Sunni groups won most of the seats in the new National Assembly. The government banned international organizations from monitoring the elections.

Shiite groups that boycotted the 2002 voting took part in the next elections in 2006. Al-Wefaq, the Shiite political society, won 42 percent of the vote and 17seats in the Council of Representatives, the lower house of the bicameral parliament. The overall results represented a victory for Islamist groups, which took 30 out of the lower chamber’s 40 seats. The remaining 10 were awarded to liberal candidates. King Hamad appointed a liberal Consultative Council, the upper house, to offset the Islamist electoral gains. In the wake of the elections, scandals emerged over claims that a senior official was determined to keep the Shiite majority underrepresented. Critics also alleged that the authorities had stepped up the naturalization of foreign workers and non-Bahraini Arabs in advance of the elections, supposedly with the intent of boosting the number of Sunni voters.

In 2008, Bahraini security forces continued their brutal 2007 crackdown on the government’s most outspoken critics. Dozens of Shiite activists jailed at the end of 2007 for holding public demonstrations alleged the systematic use of torture during their detainment, including electrocution and sexual assault. After lengthy delays in their trials, 11 of the activists were sentenced in July to prison terms ranging from one to seven years. State authorities continued to detain Shiite activists during the year, arresting over 40 people in March and April for suspected acts of arson against the property of a member of the royal family.Twenty-eight of those detained remained imprisoned at the end of 2008 and were subject to harsh treatment.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Bahrain is not an electoral democracy. The 2002 constitution gives the king power over the executive, legislative, and judicial authorities. He appoints cabinet ministers and members of the 40-seat Consultative Council, the upper house of the National Assembly. The lower house, or Council of Representatives, consists of 40 elected members serving four-year terms. The National Assembly may propose legislation, but the cabinet must draft the laws. A July 2002 royal decree forbids the National Assembly from deliberating on any action that was taken by the executive branch before December 2002—the date the body was inaugurated.

Formal political parties are illegal in Bahrain, but the government allows political societies or groupings to operate. In 2005,the king ratified a law that made it illegal to form political associations based on class, profession, or religion, and required all political associations to register with the Ministry of Justice.

Although Bahrain has some anticorruption laws, enforcement is weak, and high-ranking officials suspected of corruption are rarely punished. Bahrain was ranked 43 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Freedom of expression is restricted in Bahrain, and the authorities routinely harass activists who criticize them publicly. The government owns all broadcast media outlets. Although the country’s three main newspapers are privately owned, they are controlled by individuals with close ties to the government. According to the 2002 Press Law, the state can imprison journalists for criticizing the king or Islam, or for threatening “national security,” an intentionally vague provision that gives authorities wide latitude in cracking down on speech and encourages self-censorship. The government continued to control access to opposition and human rights websites and to block access to blogs in 2008. From June to December, the government blocked four websites and arrested at least nine journalists for criticizing the government. Despite the restrictive nature of the Bahraini press law, print outlets feature some debate among government supporters as well as the opposition regarding reform, the parliament’s effectiveness, and sectarianism.

Islam is the state religion. However, non-Muslim minorities are generally free to practice their faiths. All religious groups must obtain a permit from the Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs to operate legally, although the government has not punished groups that have operated without a permit.

Bahrain has no formal laws or regulations that limit academic freedom, but teachers and professors tend to avoid politically sensitive issues in the classroom and in their research. Scholars who criticize the government are subject to dismissal from their jobs. While there are limits to public speech, Bahrainis engage in robust private discussion in their homes, cafes, and political salons.

Severe restrictions on freedom of assembly were enacted in 2006. Citizens must obtain a license to hold demonstrations, rallies, and marches, which are now banned from sunrise to sunset in any public arena. Bahraini police regularly use violence to break up political demonstrations, most of which occur in Shiite villages. In April 2008, authorities shut down a conference at which political and human rights activists were scheduled to speak. Police in June broke up a seminar on a petition—signed by over 50,000 Bahraines—that called for the resignation of the prime minister, leaving one attendee in a coma.

Bahrain’s growing number of nongovernmental organizations focused on charitable activities, human rights, and women’s rights continue to face restrictions. The 1989 Societies Law prohibits any society from operating without an official permit. The Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) was closed and dissolved by the government in 2004, although its members continue to operate. The government in 2008 was said to be considering a new law that would loosen some restrictions on civil society groups.

Bahrainis have the right to establish independent labor unions without government permission, but workers must give two weeks’ notice before a strike, and strikes are banned in vital sectors such as security, civil defense, transportation, health care, communications, and basic infrastructure. A 2006 amendment to the labor law stipulates that private-sector employees cannot be dismissed for union activities. In spite of legal protections, the harassment of workers continues. In one notable example, Najiya Abdulgaffar, a female postal worker, was suspended for 10 days in February 2008 for complaining about harassment at work. Foreign workers are not protected by the labor law and lack the right to organize and seek help from Bahraini unions. As a result, they are subject to various kinds of abuse.

The judiciary is not independent of the executive branch. The king appoints all judges, and courts have been subject to government pressure. Members of the royal family hold all security-related offices. Bahrain’s antiterrorism law prescribes the death penalty for members of terrorist groups and prison terms for those who use religion to spread extremism. This legislation has been criticized on the grounds that its definition of terrorist crimes is too broad and that it has led to the use of torture and arbitrary detention. In a disturbing trend, activists arrested in December 2007 claimed that they were subject to regular torture while imprisoned in 2008. Victims alleged that they faced sexual assault, electrocution, and regular beatings. Although the government denies the claims, a court-appointed medical examiner confirmed evidence of physical abuse in April.

Shiites are underrepresented in government and face various forms of discrimination. Bahrain’s Sunnis have become increasingly sectarian in recent years, accusing the Shiites of not supporting the al-Khalifa family and serving as a fifth column for Iran. Fears of Shiite power have led to limited employment opportunities for young Shiite men, as well as attempts by the government to alter the demographic balance, mostly by granting citizenship to foreign-born Sunnis. Bahrainis have the right to travel freely inside and outside the country.

Although women have the right to vote and participate in local and national elections, they are underrepresented politically. One-quarter of the members appointed to the Consultative Council are women.  In 2006, the first woman elected to the legislature, Lateefa al-Gaood, won her seat after running unopposed. In May 2008 Bahrain named Hoda Nono as its first female (and Jewish) ambassador to the United States. Women are generally not afforded equal protections under the law, but they are often partners in family decision-making and enjoy rights to divorce and marry whom they choose. Nevertheless, personal status and family law issues are subject to Sharia court rulings based on the interpretation of predominantly male religious scholars.

Trend Arrow: 

Bahrain received a downward trend arrow due to the authorities’ restrictions on freedom of speech, the government’s practice of resettling Sunnis from other countries in Bahrain to offset the Shiite majority, and evidence that Shiite political prisoners have been subjected to torture.

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