Freedom in the World
Bahrain’s civil liberties rating declined from 5 to 6 due to the government’s brutal response to the February 14 popular democracy movement, the imprisonment and torture of protesters, a clampdown on critical media, and the use of military trials for civilian activists.
In February 2011, peaceful protesters launched a campaign calling for democratic political reform. The authorities responded with violence and repression, killing more than 50 people over the course of the year and wounding thousands. King Hamad imposed martial law from mid-March through June. In that time, security forces arrested hundreds of demonstrators and subjected many of them to torture. Journalists, bloggers, students, high-profile human rights and political activists, and medical personnel who treated wounded protesters all faced detention, and in many cases lengthy prison sentences. In addition, several thousand workers were fired for supporting the protest movement. Bahrain’s main opposition political society, Al-Wefaq, withdrew its 18 members from the parliament over the crackdown, and boycotted interim elections that were held in September to fill the empty seats. In November, a government-appointed commission found that Bahraini security forces used excessive force in repressing the protest movement and that, in spite of government claims to the contrary, there were no connections between Iran and the uprising. The BICI report offered a number of recommendations to resolve the country’s political impasse, none of which had been implemented by year’s end.
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 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 40 seats in the Council of Representatives, the lower house of the National Assembly.
Beginning in 2007, security forces carried out an escalating crackdown on the government’s most outspoken critics. Tensions increased 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 cycles of arrests became more frequent in 2010, and human rights organizations in Bahrain documented the use of torture against detainees.
In elections for the Council of Representatives in October 2010, Al-Wefaq 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 to boost the number of Sunni voters.
In February 2011, Bahraini activists, mostly from economically depressed Shiite communities, organized local demonstrations that called for accelerated political reform and an end to sectarian discrimination. The small groups that initially took to the streets were met with police violence. The brutal response galvanized support for the protest movement, and tens of thousands of demonstrators converged on one of Manama’s most visible public spaces, the Pearl Roundabout. Military and security forces cleared the roundabout in a violent nighttime raid on February 17, establishing what would become a pattern of harsh repercussions for those who publicly challenged the regime. In March, after hundreds of thousands of Bahrainis demonstrated in various parts of Manama, the government declared martial law and summoned military and security forces from regional allies including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to backstop a prolonged crackdown that aimed to clear the streets and collectively punish the Shiite community.
In the subsequent months, the authorities arrested hundreds of activists and prodemocracy demonstrators. Many were subjected to systematic torture and tried in secret by military courts. High-profile activists including Mushaima, Singace, Ibrahim Sharif, and human rights activist Abd al-Hadi al-Khawaja were sentenced to life in prison. The arrests also extended to journalists and bloggers who reported on the crackdown, and medical personnel who treated injured protesters. Thousands of people were fired from their jobs for supporting the uprising, and hundreds of students were dismissed from the University of Bahrain. Those who remained were forced to sign loyalty pledges.
The government lifted martial law in June but maintained a heavy security presence in primarily Shiite villages. Security forces restricted the movements of Shiite citizens, periodically destroyed property, and continued to arrest regime critics and activists. In late June, King Hamad appointed a Bahrain Commission of Inquiry (BICI) headed by Egyptian legal scholar Cherif Bassiouni to investigate claims of torture and human rights abuses committed during the crackdown. The commission published its report in late November and found that state security forces had used excessive force in crushing the protest movement in the spring. The Commission also concluded that there was no evidence that Iran or other foreign forces were behind the uprising, contradicting a key government claim. The report recommended that the government reinstate sacked workers, release political prisoners, and hold members of the security forces who broke the law accountable. In December, the Bahraini regime appointed a committee to investigate the report’s findings and replaced the head of its National Security Agency, but had not acted on any of the main recommendations by year’s end.
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. Bahrain’s main opposition party, Al-Wefaq, withdrew its 18 members from the Council of Representatives in February to protest the government’s crackdown. The opposition then boycotted interim elections that were held in September to fill the seats, with the result that all 40 seats are now held by government supporters. A source of frustration for many Bahrainis is the perception that Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, the prime minister since 1971, is both corrupt and a key opponent of reform.
While formal political parties are illegal, the government has generally allowed 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. While the government claimed that political societies remained free to operate in 2011, it imprisoned key opposition leaders, including Hassan Mushaima (Haq), Ibrahim Sharif (Democratic Action Society), Abduljalil al-Singace (Haq), Matar Ibrahim Matar (Al-Wefaq), and Jawad Fairuz (Al-Wefaq). Mushaima, Sharif, and Singace were sentenced to life in prison for their activism.
Bahrain has some anticorruption laws, but enforcement is weak, and high-ranking officials suspected of corruption are rarely punished. Bahrain was ranked 46 out of 183 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Restrictions on freedom of expression intensified in 2011, as several dozen journalists, bloggers, and users of the Twitter microblogging service were imprisoned for their responses to the prodemocracy uprising and regime crackdown. Mansour al-Jamri, former editor of the popular newspaper Al-Wasat, was charged with falsifying reporting at his paper; other Al-Wasat journalists were forced to sign pledges restricting their future commentary. The government owns all broadcast media outlets, and the private owners of the three main newspapers have close ties to the government. The government and its supporters have used the press to smear human rights and opposition activists. 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.” The prominent blogger Ali Abdulemam, a regular contributor to the popular opposition web forum Bahrain Online, was released February 2011 along with two dozen other activists who had been charged with terrorism offenses in 2010. However, he was rearrested later that month and sentenced by a military court to 15 years in prison in June for plotting to overthrow the regime. The government blocked a number of opposition websites in 2011, including those that broadcast live events, such as protests.
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. In the course of the regime’s crackdown in spring 2011, police and military forces destroyed over 40 Shiite places of worship, including mosques, religious centers, and shrines.
Academic freedom is not formally restricted, but teachers and professors in past years tended to avoid politically sensitive issues, as scholars who criticize the government are subject to dismissal. Criticism on university campuses became much more heated in 2011, when protests spread from Manama to universities across Bahrain in February and March. Along with a number of faculty and administrators who were fired for supporting the call for democracy, hundreds of university students were also expelled. Those who remained enrolled were forced to sign loyalty pledges.
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. In 2010, the government dissolved the board of directors of the Bahrain Human Rights Society, an independent NGO, and assigned a government-appointed director to run the organization. Security forces harassed prominent members of Bahraini NGOs, including Nabeel Rajab of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, throughout 2011. The government also prevented foreign NGOs, including Human Rights Watch and others, from entering the country to carry out investigations during the year.
Bahrainis have the right to establish independent labor unions, but workers must give two weeks’ notice before a strike, and strikes are banned in a variety of economic sectors. Private-sector employees cannot be dismissed for union activities, but harassment of unionist workers occurs in practice. Foreign workers are not protected by the labor law and lack the right to organize and seek help from Bahraini unions. A 2009 decision that shifted responsibility for sponsoring foreign workers from private employers to the Labor Market Regulatory Authority did not apply to household servants, who remain particularly vulnerable to exploitation. Among the several thousand people known to have been fired in 2011 for allegedly supporting the prodemocracy protests were key officials in the General Federation of Bahraini Trade Unions.
The king appoints all judges, and courts have been subject to government pressure. Members of the royal family hold all senior 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. While most of those who protested against the regime in 2011 called primarily for a democratic overhaul of the political system, many were Shiites motivated by a shared sense of persecution. Although the uprising was not initially based on sectarian resentment, Shiite-Sunni tensions deepened over the course of the year because of the government’s heavy-handed response and its attempts to frame the uprising as driven by sectarian sentiment.
As part of its crackdown in 2011, the government restricted the ability of key figures to travel outside of Bahrain. From March through November, few members of the opposition or those who supported the uprising were able to travel abroad. Authorities also restricted movement inside the country; those most affected were Shiite residents in the villages outside Manama. In order to prevent any attempt to stage rallies in the capital, security forces imposed a tight security cordon that prevented easy access to the city.
Although women have the right to vote and participate in elections, they are underrepresented politically. 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.