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The government of Bahrain pursued its crackdown on opposition activists in 2007. Critics of the ruling al-Khalifa family staged regular public gatherings demanding greater human and political rights, which security forces forcibly dispersed. Authorities continued to limit free expression, blocking access to popular websites and detaining prominent figures who publicly criticized state leaders. Meanwhile, simmering sectarian tensions between the country’s majority Shiite population and the ruling Sunni minority persisted during the year.
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 country’s first constitution provided for a national assembly with both elected and appointed members, but the monarch dissolved the assembly in 1975 for attempting to end al-Khalifa rule.
In 1993, the emir 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, the arrest of prominent individuals who had petitioned for the reestablishment of democratic institutions sparked protests. 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 marked a turning point in the country’s political development. 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.
In February 2001, voters approved the National Charter, and the country was proclaimed a constitutional kingdom the following year. However, the process of political reform had disappointed many Bahrainis by the time local and parliamentary elections were held in May and October 2002, respectively. Leading Shiite groups and leftists boycotted the elections to protest campaigning restrictions and electoral gerrymandering aimed at diminishing the power of the Shiite majority. 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, the Shiite political society, won 42 percent of the vote and 17 seats in the Council of Representatives, the lower house of the bicameral parliament. The overall results represented a victory for Islamist parties, which took 30 out of the lower chamber’s 40 seats. The remaining 10 were awarded to liberal candidates. King Hamad appointed a liberal Consultative Council, the upper house, to offset the Islamist electoral gains. In the wake of the elections, scandals emerged over claims that a senior official was determined to keep the Shiite majority underrepresented. Critics also alleged that the authorities had stepped up the naturalization of foreign workers and non-Bahraini Arabs in advance of the elections, supposedly with the intent of boosting the number of Sunni voters.
In 2007, Bahraini authorities cracked down systematically and violently on the most outspoken members of the opposition. In February, police arrested two prominent activists, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and Hassam Mushaima, for criticizing the prime minister. King Hamad pardoned both, but their arrests were consistent with an ongoing pattern of harassment. On December 17, security forces killed a demonstrator protesting the state’s past use of torture in the predominantly Shiite village of Sinabis. The government subsequently arrested dozens of activists; more than two dozen remained imprisoned at year’s end. Bahraini human rights organizations allege that the detainees have been subjected to regular torture and sexual assault.
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 popularly elected members serving four-year terms. 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 that was 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 that made it illegal to form political associations based on class, profession, or religion, and required all political associations to register with the Ministry of Justice.
Although Bahrain has some anticorruption laws, enforcement is weak, and high-ranking officials suspected of corruption are rarely punished. Bahrain was ranked 46 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedom of expression is restricted in Bahrain, and the authorities routinely harass activists who criticize them publicly. The government owns all broadcast media outlets, but the country’s three main newspapers are privately owned. According to the 2002 Press Law, the state can imprison journalists for criticizing the king or Islam, or for threatening “national security,” an intentionally vague provision that gives authorities wide latitude in cracking down on speech. Authorities continued to control access to opposition and human rights websites and to block access to blogs in 2007. Despite the restrictive nature of the Bahraini press law, print media features considerable debate among government supporters as well as the opposition regarding reform, 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, 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. Scholars who criticize the government are subject to dismissal from their jobs. While there are limits to public speech, Bahrainis engage in robust private discussion in their homes, cafés, and political salons.
Severe restrictions on freedom of assembly were enacted in 2006. Citizens must obtain a license to hold demonstrations, rallies, and marches, which are now banned from sunrise to sunset in any public arena. The new legislation further stipulates that protesters are forbidden to carry any weapons, flammable products, or sticks. Bahraini police regularly use violence to break up political demonstrations, most of which occur in Shiite villages. As frustration with the al-Khalifa family surged in 2007, state security forces, mostly composed of foreign nationals, regularly used force to disperse public gatherings.
Bahrain has seen growth in the number of nongovernmental organizations focused on charitable activities, human rights, and women’s rights, but these groups continue to face restrictions. The Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) was closed and dissolved by the government in September 2004. Although the center remains officially closed, its members continue to operate. The Ministry of Social Development has threatened to pursue legal action against a number of civil and human rights groups that are operating without permits. The 1989 Societies Law prohibits any society from operating without an official permit.
In January 2007, a Bahraini court sentenced two political activists to prison terms for possessing leaflets calling for a boycott of the 2006 parliamentary elections; the two were released in February. Nevertheless, state authorities during the year continued to detain activists who spoke out against government policies. Human rights campaigner `Abd al-Hadi al-Khawaja was arrested for the second time in three years and charged with treason. The king dropped the case against al-Khawaja and two others in May following violent street clashes between security forces and demonstrators. Also in 2007, Ghada Jamsheer, an outspoken advocate for women’s rights and Sharia (Islamic law) court reform, was banned from appearing on local broadcast media or publishing in the Bahraini press.
Bahrainis have the right to establish independent labor unions without government permission. A royal decree conferring that right also imposes limits, including a two-week notice to employers before a strike and a prohibition on strikes in vital sectors such as security, civil defense, transportation, hospitals, communications, and basic infrastructure. A 2006 amendment to the labor law stipulates that private sector employees cannot be dismissed for union activities. Foreign workers are not protected by the labor law. They do not have the right to organize or seek help from Bahraini unions. As a result, foreign laborers are subject to various kinds of abuse. Throughout 2007, Bahraini activists pressed for greater protection for expatriates in Bahrain, most notably the country’s 40,000 domestic workers.
The judiciary is not independent of the executive branch. 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. 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. This legislation has been criticized on the grounds that its definition of terrorist crimes is too broad and could lead to a heightened risk of torture and arbitrary detention. Living conditions within prison facilities have greatly improved. Prisoners are permitted to make weekly telephone calls to their families, and prisoners of all faiths have access to holy books and clergy.
Although Shiites constitute a majority of the citizenry, they are underrepresented in government and face various forms of discrimination. Over the last four years, Bahrain’s Sunnis have become increasingly sectarian, accusing the country’s Shiites of not supporting the al-Khalifa family and serving as a fifth column for Iran. Fears of Shiite power have led to limited employment opportunities for young Shiite men in the public and private sectors, as well as attempts by the government to alter the country’s demographic balance, mostly by granting citizenship to Sunnis from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, and Pakistan. Bahrainis have the right to travel freely inside and outside the country.
Although women have the right to vote and participate in local and national elections, they are underrepresented politically. In 2006, the first woman elected to the legislature, Lateefa al-Gaood, won her seat after running unopposed. In September 2007, Health Minister Nada Haffadh, Bahrain’s first woman cabinet member, was replaced in a cabinet shuffle. Women are generally not afforded equal protections under the law, but are often partners in family decision making and enjoy rights to marry whom they choose and divorce.