Freedom in the World
Relations between the country’s Shiite Muslim majority and the ruling Sunni Muslim minority continued to deteriorate in 2010, particularly during the run-up to October parliamentary elections, in which government supporters retained control. Authorities arrested dozens of Shiite activists in August and September, including the spokesperson of the opposition political society Haq. Many of those detained alleged that they were tortured in custody. The government also blocked dozens of Shiite websites and arrested one of the community’s most prominent bloggers.
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 legislative assembly with both elected and appointed members, but the monarch dissolved the body in 1975 for attempting to end al-Khalifa rule.
In 1994, prominent individuals who had petitioned for the reestablishment of democratic institutions were detained, sparking unrest that 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, leading Shiite groups and leftists boycotted local and parliamentary elections in 2002 to protest campaigning restrictions and electoral gerrymandering aimed at diminishing the power of the Shiite majority. The government barred 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 17 of the 40seats in the Council of Representatives, the lower house of the bicameral National Assembly.
Security forces cracked down on the government’s most outspoken critics in 2007, and the campaign continued the following year, with dozens of Shiite activists claiming that they were tortured in custody. Violence escalated after the January 2009 arrest of Hassan Mushaima, Abduljalil al-Singace, and Mohammed Habib al-Muqdad, three leaders of the opposition political association Haq. 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.
Relations between the government and the Shiite community deteriorated further in 2010. In August, authorities again arrested al-Singace and al-Muqdad, along with over 20 others. The government claimed that they represented a security threat to the country and filed terrorism charges against 25 detainees in October. Human rights organizations in Bahrain documented the use of torture against the suspects, whose access to family members and lawyers was restricted.
Despite fears that the crackdown on Shiite leaders would lead Al-Wefaq to boycott the Council of Representatives elections in October, the group won 18 seats. A combination of 17 independents and 5 Islamists, all Sunnis and supporters of the ruling family, captured the remaining 22 seats. As in 2002 and 2006, critics accused the government of accelerating the naturalization of foreign workers and non-Bahraini Arabs in advance of the elections to boost the number of Sunni voters.
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.
While formal political parties are illegal, 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.
Bahrain has some anticorruption laws, but enforcement is weak, and high-ranking officials suspected of corruption are rarely punished. Bahrain was ranked 48 out of 178 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2010 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 September 2010 authorities arrested the prominent blogger Ali Abdulemam, a regular contributor to the popular opposition web forum Bahrain Online. He was subsequently charged with threatening national security and brought to trial on terrorism charges with 24 other activists. Also that month, the government shut down over a dozen news and other websites associated with the Shiite community. The government and its supporters have used the press to criticize and smear human rights and opposition activists. For example, a photograph of human rights activist Nabeel Rajab was published in several newspapers as part of a list of suspected terrorists. 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, though the government has not punished groups that operate without a permit. In 2010, amid the crackdown on Shiite activists, the government stripped Ayatollah Hussein Mirza Najati, one of the country’s top Shiite clerics, of his Bahraini nationality.
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.
Citizens must obtain a license to hold demonstrations, which are 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 (NGO) from operating without a permit. The Bahrain Center for Human Rights was closed by the government in 2004, though its members continue to operate. In September 2010, the government dissolved the board of directors of the Bahrain Human Rights Society, an independent NGO, for mostly alleged administrative and legal “irregularities,” and assigned a government-appointed director to run the organization.
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. Private-sector employees cannot be dismissed for union activities, but harassment of unionist 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 change 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. Critics have argued that the law’s definition of terrorist crimes is too broad and that it has encouraged 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 government attempts 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. In 2010, Fatima Salman became the first woman elected to a municipal council in a Gulf country. While they are often partners in family decision-making, women are generally not afforded equal protection 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 by the parliament. Personal status and family law issues for Shiite Bahrainis are consequently still governed by Sharia (Islamic law) court rulings based on the interpretations of predominantly male religious scholars rather than by any formal statute.
Bahrain received a downward trend arrow due to an intensified crackdown on members of the Shiite Muslim majority in 2010, including assaults and arrests of dozens of activists and journalists, as well as reports of widespread torture of political prisoners.