Freedom in the World
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In response to international pressure, Qatar banned the use of underage camel jockeys and repatriated 200 underage jockeys in the summer of 2005. In addition, Qatar opened a new human rights department in the Ministry of the Interior and created a shelter for victims of trafficking. Despite this progress, there was little movement on reforming the country's political system, and the royal family remained in firm control of its monopoly on political power.
For the first half of the nineteenth century, the Al Khalifa family of Bahrain dominated the territory now known as Qatar. The Ottoman Empire occupied Qatar from 1872 until World War I, when the United Kingdom recognized Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim Al Thani as the ruler of Qatar, and Sheikh Abdullah signed a series of treaties of friendship and commerce with the United Kingdom. After World War II, Qatar rapidly developed its oil production industry, and the oil wealth contributed to economic and social development in the country.
Qatar became formally independent in 1971. From 1971 to 1995, Emir Khalifa bin Hamad Al Thani ruled as an absolute monarch, with few government institutions checking his authority. In 1995, the emir was deposed by his son Hamad, who began a program to introduce gradual political, social, and economic reforms. Hamad dissolved the Ministry of Information shortly after taking power, an action designed to demonstrate his commitment to expanding press freedom.
In 1996, Hamad permitted the creation of Al-Jazeera, which has become one of the most popular Arabic language satellite television channels in the Middle East. Al-Jazeera, however, generally does not cover Qatari politics and focuses instead on regional issues such as the situation in Iraq and the Arab-Israeli conflict. In the past few years, Sheikh Hamad accelerated a program to build Qatar's educational institutions, attracting foreign universities to establish branches in Qatar; Cornell University established a separate campus of the Weill Cornell Medical College in Doha in 2002. In 1999, Qatar held elections for a 29-member municipal council and became the first state of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to introduce universal suffrage.
In 2002, a 38-member committee appointed by Hamad presented a draft constitution, which was refined and presented to the public in a referendum in April 2003. This new constitution, which was approved by almost 97 percent of voters, slightly broadens the scope of political participation without eliminating the monopoly on power enjoyed by the Al Thani family. Most rights in the new constitution do not apply to the majority of people living in Qatar-noncitizen residents.
Qataris cannot change their government democratically They possess only limited power to elect local government representatives with limited powers over local services. These representatives report to the minister of municipal affairs and agriculture, who is appointed by the emir. The head of state is the emir-currently Khalifa bin Hamad Al Thani-and the Al Thani family has a monopoly on political power in Qatar. The emir appoints a prime minister and the cabinet. The constitution states that the emir appoints an heir after consulting with the royal family and other notables. A constitution, ratified by public referendum in 2003 and promulgated by the emir in 2004, provides for elections to 30 of the 45 seats in a new advisory council. The emir has the power to appoint the other 15 members of the advisory council.
In April 2003, citizens voted for a 29-member advisory Central Municipal Council, which will serve a four-year term. The Central Municipal Council addresses local infrastructure issues such as street repair and services such as trash collection. The government does not permit the existence of political parties.
Critics allege a lack of transparency in government procurement, with few proper procedures in place to ensure fair competition for government contracts. In April 2005, three government officials were fired for involvement in a scandal related to fraudulent stock purchases of the Qatar Gas Transport Company. Qatar was ranked 32 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The constitution guarantees freedom of expression, and the state has generally refrained from direct censorship. However, content in the print and broadcast media is influenced by leading families. The five leading daily newspapers are privately owned, but their owners and board members include royal family members and other notables. Although the satellite television channel Al-Jazeera is privately owned, the Qatari government has reportedly paid operating costs for the channel since its inception. Qataris have access to the internet through a telecommunications monopoly that has recently been privatized, but the government censors content and blocks access to certain sites deemed pornographic or politically sensitive.
Islam is Qatar's official religion; however, the new constitution explicitly provides for freedom of worship. The Ministry of Islamic Affairs regulates clerical affairs and the construction of mosques. Converting to another religion from Islam is considered apostasy and is a capital offense, but there have been no reports of executions for apostasy. In June, Qatar hosted the Third Conference for Religious Dialogue, the first time the country hosted a conference with representatives from Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. The new constitution provides for freedom of opinion and research, but scholars often practice self-censorship on politically sensitive topics.
The constitution provides for freedom of assembly and the right to form organizations, but these rights are limited in practice. Public protests and demonstrations are rare, with the government placing strict limits on the public's ability to organize demonstrations. All nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) need state permission to operate, and the government closely monitors the activities of these groups. In April, the Ministry of Civil Service Affairs and Housing promulgated new regulations for NGOs and professional associations. The regulations streamline operating requirements for associations and set restrictions on membership and activities.
There are no independent human rights organizations, but a National Committee for Human Rights (NCHR), consisting of members of civil society and government ministries, has done some work on investigating allegations of human rights abuses. The NCHR has a human rights hotline and presents regular reports to the government cabinet on the human rights situation.
A new labor law came into effect in January, expanding some protections for citizens. However, the law prohibits noncitizen workers from forming labor unions. Foreign nationals, who make up most of the workforce in Qatar, face severe disadvantages in labor contract cases. Although foreign laborers have limited legal rights to appear before the same courts as Qatari citizens, fear of job loss and deportation prevents many workers from exercising even these limited rights. In August, hundreds of foreign construction workers organized a strike to protest nonpayment of salaries and deterioration of living conditions.
Despite constitutional guarantees, the judiciary is not independent in practice. The majority of Qatar's judges are foreign nationals who are appointed and removed by the emir. The judicial system consists of two sets of courts: Sharia (Islamic law) courts, which have jurisdiction over a narrow range of issues, such as family law; and civil law courts, which have jurisdiction over commercial and civil suits. These two sets of courts have been united under the Supreme Judiciary Council, which regulates the judiciary. Qatar has a three-tiered system of courts: the Courts of First Instance, Appeal, and Cassation.
The constitution protects individuals from arbitrary arrest and detention and bans torture. However, these rights are restricted by Law 17 of 2002, which provides exemptions from the prohibition of arbitrary arrest and detention for the "protection of society." This law empowers the minister of the interior to detain a defendant for crimes related to national security on the recommendation of the director-general of public security. In 2005, three individuals were detained under Law 17. Defendants are entitled to legal representation. Prisons meet international standards, and the police generally follow proper procedures set in accordance with the law.
The government discriminates against noncitizen foreign nationals in education, housing, health care, and other services offered free of charge to citizens. In June, government officials stripped 5,000 persons of Qatari nationality, most of them dual citizens in Saudi Arabia. However, the government also began addressing some problems in Qatar related to trafficking in persons by legislating a ban on underage camel jockeys. In July and August, it repatriated about 200 underage jockeys to Sudan. In July 2005, the Ministry of the Interior established a human rights department to handle cases of human rights abuses and trafficking in persons. In September, the government opened a shelter for trafficking victims.
The constitution treats women as full and equal persons. Article 35 of the constitution bans discrimination based on sex, country of origin, language, or religion. Nevertheless, despite legal guarantees of equality, women continue to face societal gender discrimination, and few legal mechanisms are available for women to contest instances of discrimination. Sharia law gives preference to men over women on a range of issues related to family law, including divorce, custody of children, and inheritance. Qatari women must receive permission from male guardians to obtain driver's licenses, and men sometimes prevent female relatives from traveling alone. Qatar's educational system is segregated by gender. Women outnumber men at the University of Qatar, but women face social restrictions on their ability to travel and study abroad. Women have the right to participate in elections and run for office. In the April 2003 municipal elections, Sheikha Yousef Hassan al-Jufairi became the first woman elected to public office.