Freedom in the World
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Although power remains firmly in the hands of the ruling Al Khalifa family in Bahrain, the country experienced several important incidents related to the struggle for greater freedom in 2005. Civil society groups demonstrated for constitutional reform in the spring, and women's advocates worked for legal reforms to enhance women's rights. In November, Bahrain hosted the Forum of the Future, which brought together Middle East leaders with leaders from the industrialized countries of the Group of 8 (G-8) to discuss political, economic, and social reform in the Middle East.
The Al Khalifa family, which has ruled Bahrain for more than two centuries, comes from Bahrain's minority Sunni Muslim population in this mostly Shiite 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 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 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 local elections and parliamentary elections were held, in May 2002 and October 2002, respectively. Leading Shiite groups and leftists boycotted these elections, protesting political campaigning restrictions and electoral gerrymandering aimed at diminishing the power of the Shiite 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.
In November 2005, Bahrain hosted the second meeting of the Forum for the Future, part of the Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative inaugurated at the 2004 G-8 summit. Though the forum was aimed at advancing political rights and civil liberties, Bahraini authorities announced that public demonstrations would not be allowed during the conference. The Forum for the Future ended without agreement on a final declaration supporting democracy, with Egypt blocking a joint declaration over objections that the declaration did not give Arab governments a say over which nongovernmental groups (NGOs) would receive outside donor assistance.
Citizens of Bahrain cannot change their government democratically. 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 bicameral 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.
Formal political parties are illegal in Bahrain, but the government allows political societies or groupings to operate and organize activities in the country. In August 2005, the king, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, ratified a new political associations law making it illegal to form political associations based on class, profession, or religion and requiring all political associations to register with the Ministry of Justice. After months of protesting the new law, Bahrain's main political associations decided to register in the fall.
Although Bahrain has some anticorruption laws, enforcement is weak, and high-ranking officials suspected of corruption are rarely punished. Bahrain was ranked 36 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedom of expression is limited in Bahrain. The government owns all broadcast media outlets, although the country's three main newspapers are privately owned. Though internet and e-mail access have generally been unrestricted, there are reports of government monitoring of e-mail communications. In March, Bahraini security forces detained Ali Abdul al-Imam, who runs an internet site criticizing the government and the ruling family, on charges of spreading hatred against the government and false news; Al-Imam was released after a few weeks. In April, Bahrain announced that it would require all websites to register with the Ministry of Information, raising alarm among press freedom advocates.
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.
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 in their research. In March, the government approved a measure to introduce democracy and human rights as required subjects in the curriculum of state-run preparatory and secondary schools.
The constitution provides for freedom of assembly, and the government generally allows demonstrations. In February, women activists demonstrated to demand the resignation of Attorney General Sheikh Abdul Rahman bin Jaber Al Khalifa and several judges for blocking legal complaints by women and to ask for a new civil status law. In March, civil society groups rallied for constitutional reform, including abolishing amendments that give the appointed upper house of parliament as much power as the elected house. In June, hundreds of human rights activists demonstrated against Royal Decree 52, which grants immunity to security officials who allegedly tortured detainees during civil unrest in the 1990s.
Bahrain has seen strong growth in the number of NGOs working in charitable activities, human rights, and women's rights, but restrictions remain on these groups. The Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) resumed activities in January. It had been closed and dissolved by the government in September 2004, and its executive director, 'Abd al-Hadi al-Khawaja, was arrested after he criticized the prime minister and the government for its performance on poverty and economic rights. In late November 2004, Sheikh Hamad suspended Al-Khawaja's 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 gives workers the right to strike after a strike action is approved by three-quarters of union members in a secret ballot.
The judiciary is not independent of the executive branch of government. The king appoints all judges, and courts have been subject to government pressure. In the spring of 2005, Bahrain announced a plan to reform its judicial system, with measures to improve court efficiency to make trials quicker. 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. In the spring, the government proposed new antiterrorism legislation that provided the death penalty for terrorist groups and jail terms for those who use religion to spread extremism. The proposed legislation was criticized by several civil society groups for abridging freedoms and placing too much unchecked power in the hands of security services.
Although Shias constitute a majority of the citizenry, they are underrepresented in government and face discrimination in the workplace. Over the past five years, Bahrain has taken steps to integrate stateless persons, known as bidoon and consisting mostly of Shias 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. In November 2001, Lulwa al-Awadi became the first woman to receive a position of ministerial rank as general secretary for the Supreme Council for Women. The king appointed six women to the Consultative Council in November 2002. In January 2005, the king swore in a new cabinet, including Fatima al-Balushi as minister of social affairs, who became the second female minister in Bahrain's history. Women are generally not afforded equal protections under the law.
In June, the government charged a prominent women's rights advocate, Ghada Jamsheer, with publicly criticizing family court judges. Jamsheer, who heads the Women's Petition Committee, has led a campaign demanding reform of Bahrain's family courts and codification of the kingdom's family laws. As of the end of November, Jamsheer's case was still pending.