Bahrain | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2013

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Despite an ongoing security crackdown, prodemocracy protests continued throughout 2012. While most remained peaceful, there were signs that the opposition was becoming more radicalized. Bahraini courts upheld life sentences for opposition leaders, and the year featured new rounds of arrests and incarcerations of human rights activists, including Nabeel Rajab and Zaynab al-Khawaja. The government promised to meet international human rights standards and implement the recommendations of an official 2011 inquiry, but it failed to enact substantive reforms in practice. Although several police officers were put on trial for abuses carried out in 2011, the details of the proceedings and sentences remained unclear. No high-level officials had been held accountable for torture or police brutality by year’s end, and the government refused to engage in meaningful discussions with the opposition.

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 monitors, and Sunni groups won most 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.

In 2007, security forces began an escalating crackdown on the government’s critics. Tensions increased after the 2009 arrest of Hassan Mushaima, Abduljalil al-Singace, and Mohammed Habib al-Muqdad, three leaders of the opposition political association Haq. Protests and arrests grew more frequent in 2010, and torture of detainees was reported.

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 remainder. As in 2002 and 2006, critics accused the government of granting citizenship to foreigners to boost the number of Sunni voters.

In February 2011, Bahraini activists, mostly from economically depressed Shiite communities, organized small demonstrations to call for political reform and an end to sectarian discrimination. The brutal police response galvanized support for the protest movement, and tens of thousands of demonstrators converged on central Manama. Military and security forces dispersed the crowd in a violent nighttime raid on February 17, but hundreds of thousands of Bahrainis continued to demonstrate in various parts of the capital. In March, the government declared martial law and summoned troops from regional allies including Saudi Arabia to backstop a prolonged crackdown.

In the subsequent months, the authorities arrested hundreds of activists and prodemocracy demonstrators. Many were tortured and tried by military courts. Leaders 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.

The government lifted martial law in June 2011 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 June, King Hamad appointed a Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) to investigate allegations of human rights abuses during the crackdown. In late November, the panel concluded that security personnel had used excessive force. The BICI found no evidence that Iran or other foreign elements were behind the uprising, contradicting a key government claim. The report recommended that the government reinstate fired workers, release political prisoners, and punish members of the security forces who broke the law.

Widespread protests and the systematic security crackdown continued throughout 2012, and several protesters were killed during the year. The regime also continued to abuse suspected dissidents. In one prominent case, 16-year-old Ali al-Singace was allegedly arrested, tortured, sexually assaulted, stabbed, bound in handcuffs, and dumped on the street. The protest movement was most visible in April, when the country hosted an international Formula One race despite activists’ objections that the government was using it to paper over ongoing political unrest. Protesters remained mostly peaceful, although younger activists grew more confrontational with police, in some cases throwing Molotov cocktails.

In September, the government pledged to honor over 120 UN recommendations on improving human rights conditions, but the year featured targeted arrests of human rights activists who had communicated effectively with international audiences. The country’s best-known activist, Nabeel Rajab, was arrested in June and subsequently sentenced to two years in prison for allegedly organizing demonstrations. In August, authorities arrested Zaynab al-Khawaja, daughter of Abd al-Hadi al-Khawaja, for tearing up a picture of the king; she was sentenced to two months in jail. Her father, who had staged a lengthy hunger strike, was again sentenced to life in prison in September after securing a retrial in a civilian court. Other retrials during the year upheld convictions for nine medical personnel who treated wounded protesters in 2011. In October, police arrested Mohammed al-Maskati, head of the Bahrain Human Rights Youth Society, for organizing demonstrations.

Even as the crackdown continued, Bahraini authorities took small steps to account for the abuses of 2011. Several police officers were reportedly tried during 2012 for mistreating activists. The government claimed that a number were convicted, but it withheld their identities and closed the court proceedings to the public, making it difficult to verify any actual punishments. In June the government announced that it would distribute $2.6 million in compensation to the families of 17 people who were killed in 2011, addressing one of the BICI recommendations.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

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 group, Al-Wefaq, withdrew its 18 members from the Council of Representatives in February 2011 to protest the government’s crackdown. The opposition then boycotted interim elections held that September to fill the seats, with the result that all 40 seats are now held by government supporters.

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), Abd al-Jalil 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. After a lengthy appeals process, Bahrain’s courts upheld their sentences in September 2012.

Bahrain has some anticorruption laws, but enforcement is weak, and high-ranking officials suspected of corruption are rarely punished. A source of frustration for many citizens is the perception that Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, the king’s uncle and Bahrain’s prime minister since 1971, is both corrupt and a key opponent of reform. Bahrain was ranked 53 out of 176 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Restrictions on freedom of expression continued in 2012. The government owns all broadcast media outlets, and the private owners of the three main newspapers have close ties to the state. The government and its supporters have used the press to smear human rights and opposition activists. In May, state television engaged in one such campaign against the independent newspaper Al-Wasat, repeating a pattern of harassment that began in 2011. 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.” Human rights activist Nabeel Rajab was arrested in May and June 2012 for criticizing the government on the Twitter microblogging service, though his three-month jail sentence was later overturned. He remained behind bars due to an August sentence of three years in prison for organizing protests, reduced to two years on appeal in December. The prominent blogger Ali Abdulemam, a regular contributor to the popular opposition web forum Bahrain Online, was sentenced in absentia to 15 years in prison by a military court in 2011, and he remained missing in 2012. The government continued to block a number of opposition websites during the year, including those that broadcast live events, such as protests. The authorities also obstructed foreign journalists’ attempts to operate in the country. Jonathan Miller, a foreign correspondent for Britain’s Channel 4, was arrested and deported along with his crew in April after covering demonstrations.

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, the government stripped Ayatollah Hussein Mirza Najati, one of the country’s top Shiite clerics, of his Bahraini nationality. Police and military forces destroyed over 40 Shiite places of worship during the spring 2011 crackdown. The government has promised to rebuild at least 12 of the mosques, but had not begun widespread efforts to do so in 2012.

Academic freedom is not formally restricted, but scholars who criticize the government are subject to dismissal. In 2011, a number of faculty and administrators were fired for supporting the call for democracy, and hundreds of students and some faculty were expelled. Those who remained 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. The authorities blocked visits by foreign NGOs during 2012. Among others, Richard Sollom of Physicians for Human Rights was denied entry in January, and a delegation from the International Trade Union Confederation and the International Labour Organization were denied entry in September.

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 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. In September 2012, the government prevented a delegation from the International Trade Union Confederation and the United Nation’s International Labour Organization from entering the country to participate in the annual congress of the General Federation of Bahrain 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. In 2012 the regime continued its systematic sectarian discrimination and recruited over 5,000 foreign Sunnis to take up Bahraini citizenship.

The government continued to obstruct foreign travel by key opposition figures and activists in 2012. Authorities also restricted movement inside the country, particularly for residents of largely Shiite villages outside Manama. A tight security cordon blocked easy access to the capital.

Although women have the right to vote and participate in elections, they are underrepresented politically. Women are generally not afforded equal protection under the law. The government drafted a personal status law in 2008 but withdrew it in 2009 under pressure from Shiite clergy; the Sunni portion was later 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.