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After several years of political reform culminating in the restoration of the national parliament in 2002, Bahrain reversed course in 2004, taking steps that raised questions about its commitment to political rights and civil liberties. The government arrested numerous opposition activists critical of government policy and democracy advocates calling for more reform, closed a leading independent human rights organization, and cracked down on public protests.
The Al Khalifa family, which has ruled Bahrain for more than two centuries, comes from Bahrain's minority Sunni Muslim population in this mostly Shia Muslim country. Bahrain gained independence in 1971 after more than a hundred years as a British protectorate. The country's first constitution provided for a national assembly with both elected and appointed members, but the king dissolved the assembly in 1975 because it attempted to end Al Khalifa rule; the Al Khalifa family ruled without the national assembly until 2002.
In 1993, the king established a consultative council of appointed notables, although this advisory body had no legislative power and did not lead to any major policy shifts. In 1994, Bahrain experienced protests sparked by arrests of prominent individuals who had petitioned for the reestablishment of democratic institutions such as the national assembly. The unrest left more than 40 people dead, thousands arrested, and hundreds either imprisoned or exiled.
Shaikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa's March 1999 accession to the throne following his father's death marked a turning point in Bahrain. Hamad released political prisoners, permitted the return of exiles, and eliminated emergency laws and courts. He also introduced the National Charter, which set a goal of creating a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament, separation of powers with an independent judicial branch, and rights guaranteeing women's political participation.
In February 2001, voters overwhelmingly approved the National Charter. However, the process of political reform ultimately disappointed many Bahrainis by the time of the holding of local elections in May 2002 and parliamentary elections in October 2002. Leading Shia groups and leftists boycotted these elections, protesting restrictions on political campaigning and electoral gerrymandering aimed at diminishing the power of the Shia majority. Sunni Muslim groups ended up winning most of the seats in the new National Assembly. Despite the boycott, opposition groups fared well at the polls, and the new cabinet included opposition figures.
Throughout 2004 the Bahraini government took steps to stifle rising criticisms of its resistance to further political reforms from independent and opposition figures. During a conference held in February, four leading opposition groups renewed demands for a new constitution, contending that the 2002 constitution was illegitimately issued by a decree from Shaikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa without meaningful public input. The government, displeased with the conference, denied entry to three Kuwaiti members of parliament and to democracy activists from Great Britain, France, Kuwait, and Jordan. In April and May, the government arrested 20 democratic activists for allegedly organizing an "illegal" petition for constitutional changes that would give greater political authority to Bahrain's parliament.
Political reform took a backseat to economic reform and rising security concerns during the year. Bahrain pushed forward on privatization in 2004 and signed a free trade agreement with the United States in September. Increasing violence and instability in Saudi Arabia led Bahrain to step up security on the causeway linking Bahrain to Saudi Arabia.
Bahraini citizens do not have the ability to choose the leader with the most power in Bahrain, the king. Bahrain's 2002 constitution gives the king power over the executive, legislative and judicial authorities. He appoints cabinet ministers and members of the Consultative Council. The National Assembly consists of 40 popularly elected members of the Council of Deputies and 40 members of the Shura Council appointed by the king. 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 taken by the executive branch before December 2002 - the date the new National Assembly was inaugurated.
The Council of Deputies has shown signs of assertiveness in checking the power of the government. In January, the Council of Deputies issued a report on an eight-month parliamentary probe into alleged financial and administrative irregularities at the General Organization for Social Insurance and the Pension Fund Commission, two leading pension funds. Parliamentary committees questioned three government ministers and eventually cleared them of any wrongdoing in May.
Formal political parties are illegal in Bahrain, but the government allows political societies or groupings to operate and organize activities in the country. The National Assembly's legislative and legal affairs committee rejected a proposal in 2004 to legalize political parties.
Although Bahrain has some anticorruption laws, enforcement is weak, and high-ranking officials suspected of corruption are rarely punished. Bahrain was ranked 34 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedom of expression is limited in Bahrain, which in 2004 received a low ranking of 143 out of 167 countries in press freedom by the media watchdog group Reporters Sans Frontieres. The government owns all broadcast media outlets. In August, the government announced plans to eliminate the Information Ministry and establish the Bahrain Radio and Television Commission as a new regulatory commission for the media. There is a stronger degree of freedom in the print media; the country's three main newspapers are privately owned. Though Internet and e-mail access has generally been unrestricted, there are reports of government monitoring of e-mail communications.
Islam is the state religion. However, non-Muslim minorities are generally free to practice their religion. According to the law, all religious groups must obtain a permit from the Ministry of Justice and Islamic affairs to operate, although the government has not punished groups that have operated without this permit. Although Shiites constitute a majority of the citizenry, they are underrepresented in government and face discrimination in the workplace.
Bahrain has no formal laws or regulations that limit academic freedom, but teachers and professors tend to avoid politically sensitive topics and issues in the classroom and their research. The constitution provides for freedom of assembly, and the government generally allows demonstrations. In December 2003, political opposition leaders organized a mass demonstration to mark what they called the day of martyrs, to commemorate those who were killed by Bahraini security forces during the 1994 protests. In March, at the U.S. Embassy, hundreds of Bahrainis protested the Israeli assassination of Hamas founder Shaikh Ahmad Yasin. Protests in May against military actions in the Iraqi cities of Najaf and Karbala, American abuses of Iraqi prisoners, and Israeli mistreatment of Palestinians resulted in numerous clashes between police and protestors. However, in the face of recent criticisms of government policy, Prime Minister Shaikh Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa signaled new legal changes that would impose more regulations on rallies and public gatherings.
Bahrain has seen strong growth in the number of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working in charitable activities, human rights, and women's rights, but restrictions remain on these groups. In July, the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs sent letters to more than 80 of Bahrain's estimated 360 registered NGOs threatening them with closure for technical violations of the 1989 Associations Law, including failing to have permanent headquarters and to convene annual meetings.
The government closed and dissolved the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) in September, raising serious questions about its commitment to political reform and freedom for civil society. The government arrested 'Abd al-Hadi al-Khawaja, executive director of the BCHR, who criticized the prime minister and government's performance during a September conference on poverty and economic rights. Al-Khawaja was convicted of inciting hatred against the government and sentenced to jail for one year. However, in late November, Shaikh Hamad intervened to suspend the sentence.
Bahrainis have the right to establish independent labor unions without government permission. A royal decree giving workers the right to form labor unions also imposes limits, including a two-week notice to the company before a strike and a prohibition on strikes in vital sectors such as security, civil defense, transportation, hospitals, communications, and basic infrastructure. The law includes workers' rights to strike after approval by three-quarters of union members in a secret ballot. In January, Bahraini labor leaders announced the formation of the country's first general federation of labor unions, the second such body in the Gulf region.
The judiciary is not independent of the executive branch of government. The king appoints all judges, and courts have been subject to government pressure. The Ministry of the Interior is responsible for public security within the country and oversees the police and internal security services, and members of the royal family hold all security-related offices. The constitution provides rule-of-law protections, and government authorities generally respect these protections.
Over the past five years, Bahrain has taken steps to integrate stateless persons, known as bidoon and mostly consisting of Shi'a of Persian origin, into the country, offering citizenship to several thousand. Nevertheless, bidoon and citizens who speak Farsi as their first language continue to face some social discrimination and special challenges finding employment.
Although women have the right to vote and participate in local and national elections, they are underrepresented politically. No woman has been elected to office in municipal or legislative elections. The king appointed six women to the Consultative Council. Women are generally not afforded equal protections under the law. In September, a group of women's rights activists announced plans to sue the government over the refusal of the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs to grant them a license to form the Bahrain Women's Union, an independent women's organization.