Freedom in the World
Bahrain’s political rights rating declined from 5 to 6 and its status from Partly Free to Not Free due to arrests of prominent members of the Haq political society, an increase in systematic harassment of opposition figures, and worsening sectarian discrimination.
Tensions between the country’s Shiite majority and the ruling Sunni minority intensified in 2009. In January, authorities arrested three leaders of the mostly Shiite opposition political society Haq, sparking a series of violent protests. Also that month, the information minister ordered internet service providers to block access to websites with political content that was critical of the government. In June, the government briefly closed the daily newspaper Akhbar al-Khaleej for an article that was critical of Iran’s leadership.
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 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.
After Sheikh Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa ascended to the throne in 1999, 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.
Voters approved the National Charter in 2001, 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. The government banned international organizations from monitoring the elections, and Sunni groups won most of the seats in the new National Assembly.
Shiite groups that boycotted the 2002 voting took part in the next elections in 2006. Al-Wefaq, a Shiite political society, won 42 percent of the vote and 17seats in the Council of Representatives, the lower house of the bicameral National Assembly. The overall results represented a victory for Islamist groups, which took 30 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, claims emerged 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 to boost the number of Sunni voters.
Security forces cracked down on the government’s most outspoken critics in 2007, and the campaign continued through 2008, with dozens of Shiite activists claiming that they were tortured in custody. Violence escalated following the January 2009 arrest of Hassan Mushaima, Abduljalil al-Singace, and Mohammed Habib al-Muqdad, three leaders of the opposition political association Haq. Authorities compounded tensions that month when they arrested the popular human rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja for a speech that was critical of the government. Al-Khawaja was charged with “instigating hatred and disrespect” against the government and faced a possible 10-year prison sentence, but subsequently received a royal pardon in April. While the pardon provided al-Khawaja his freedom, royal pardons are temporary. The charges and the possibility of future imprisonment remain in place. Protests and clashes between mostly young Shiites and security forces broke out regularly between January and April, with police using live ammunition to disperse demonstrators.
In a bid to calm the unrest, the government released Mushaima, al-Singace, and al-Muqdad in April, and the king pardoned 22 Shiite activists who had been imprisoned for 10 months on charges of “promoting regime change through terrorism.” In October, 19 Shiites were acquitted of murdering a police officer in 2008.
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.
Formal political parties are illegal, but the government allows political societies or groupings to operate. A 2005 law makes it illegal to form political associations based on class, profession, or religion, and requires 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 46 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedom of expression is restricted, and the authorities routinely harass activists who criticize them publicly. The government owns all broadcast media outlets, and the private owners of the three main newspapers have close ties to the government. Self-censorship is encouraged by the vaguely worded 2002 Press Law, which allows the state to imprison journalists for criticizing the king or Islam, or for threatening “national security.” In January 2009, the information minister ordered internet service providers to continue blocking websites with critical political content. In June the government temporarilyshut down the newspaper Akhbar al-Khaleej for an article denouncing Iran’s leadership. The government and its supporters have also used the press to criticize and smear human rights and opposition activists. Despite these restrictions, print outlets feature some debate 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 operate without a permit.
Academic freedom is not formally restricted, but teachers and professors tend to avoid politically sensitive issues, and scholars who criticize the government are subject to dismissal. While there are some 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, which are now banned from sunrise to sunset in any public arena. Police regularly use violence to break up political protests, most of which occur in Shiite villages. The 1989 Societies Law prohibits any nongovernmental organization from operating without a permit. The Bahrain Center for Human Rights was closed by the government in 2004, although its members continue to operate. In September 2009, Mohammad al-Maskati, president of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, was charged for operating the organization without a registration; he faced up to six months’ imprisonment.
Bahrainis have the right to establish independent labor unions, 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, but harassment of workers continues. Foreign workers are not protected by the labor law and lack the right to organize and seek help from Bahraini unions. In August 2009, the labor minister announced that the Labor Market Regulatory Authority would take over responsibility for sponsoring foreign workers, removing the power of sponsorship from employers. While the move was expected to protect foreign workers from some abuses, it did not apply to household servants, who are particularly vulnerable to exploitation.
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.
Shiites are underrepresented in government and face various forms of discrimination. Fears of Shiite power and suspicions about their loyalties have limited employment opportunities for young Shiite men and fueled attempts by the government to erode the Shiite majority, 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 elections, they are underrepresented politically. One-quarter of Consultative Council members are women, and the first woman in the Council of Representatives won her seat in 2006 after running unopposed. In May 2008, Bahrain named Hoda Nono as its first female (and Jewish) ambassador to the United States. While they are often partners in family decision-making, women are generally not afforded equal protections under the law. The government drafted a personal status law in 2008 but withdrew it in February 2009 under pressure from the country’s Shiite clergy; the Sunni portion was resubmitted and passed in parliament. Personal status and family law issues for Shiite Bahrainis are still subject to Sharia court rulings based on the interpretation of predominantly male religious scholars and are not included in the recently enacted law.
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)