Freedom in the World
You are here
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Bahrain received a downward trend arrow due to a new ban on unapproved contact between political societies and foreign officials or organizations as well as a government move to dissolve the Islamic Scholars’ Council.
In an effort to break through the political crisis that has plagued Bahrain since antigovernment protests erupted in February 2011, the government held its first talks with the opposition in more than 18 months in February 2013. This National Dialogue made little progress, as the regime continued to crackdown on protesters and harass the country’s majority Shiite population, leading the opposition to boycott the dialogue repeatedly throughout the year.
Large numbers of demonstrators continued to stage public protests critical of the regime. Most of these remained peaceful, although some opposition forces became increasingly violent and confrontational over the course of the year. In a response to repeated police brutality, attacks against security forces increased considerably during the year. For its part, the regime continued to use strong-arm tactics by detaining hundreds over the course of the year, sentencing dozens of activists to long prison terms, and torturing those detained. Several protesters were killed by police during the year. As they had in 2012, Bahraini authorities systematically targeted human rights defenders in 2013, including arresting prominent activists Naji Fateel of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights and Sayed Muhafedha of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.
Security forces also continued to target journalists and sought to further restrict freedom of speech. In July, with the support of both chambers of the parliament, King Hamad issued a new “anti-terrorism” decree which stated that protesters who demonstrate in spite of a state ban or without government permission can be stripped of their citizenship and fined. In September, the Justice Minister ordered Bahraini nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and political societies to seek government permission before meeting with or communicating with international organizations.
Political Rights: 6 / 40 [Key]
A. Electoral Process: 3 / 12
Bahrainis approved a 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 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 Shiite opposition grouping, 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, and as a result, all 40 seats are now held by government supporters.
B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 2 / 16
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. 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. A brutal police response galvanized support for the protest movement, and tens of thousands of demonstrators converged on central Manama. In March 2011, the government declared martial law and summoned troops from regional allies including Saudi Arabia to backstop a prolonged crackdown. While the government claimed that political societies remained free to operate, it has 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 appeal process, Bahrain’s courts upheld their sentences in January 2013. In December the president of al-Wefaq, Ali Salman, was arrested, charged with inciting unrest, and banned from traveling.
The government re-launched the National Dialogue in February 2013 in an attempt to re-engage the opposition in the political process. For their part, opposition representatives participated haltingly and cautiously throughout the year, staging several boycotts due to the ongoing crackdown against protesters, continued arrests of opposition leaders, and rising levels of police brutality. Senior members of Al-Wefaq continued to be detained in 2013, including Khalil al-Marzooq, who was arrested for his criticisms of the government during a rally in September. Al-Wefaq’s president, Ali Salman, was charged with inciting hatred and spreading false news after giving a speech criticizing the government in December.
The government has maintained a heavy security presence in primarily Shiite villages since 2011. Security forces restricted the movements of Shiite citizens, periodically destroyed property, and continued to arrest regime critics and activists.
C. Functioning of Government: 3 / 12
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. A British investigation into illicit payments allegedly made by a British-Canadian citizen to Aluminum Bahrain in 2013 was dropped, although it is widely believed that the payments occurred and that the Bahraini Prime Minister was either aware of them or involved. Bahrain was ranked 57 out of 177 countries and territories surveyed in Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Discretionary Political Rights Question B: -2 / 0
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 2013 the regime continued its systematic sectarian discrimination and continued to recruit foreign Sunnis to serve in the country’s security services and to take up Bahraini citizenship.
Civil Liberties: 10 / 60 (-2)
D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 2 / 16 (-1)
Restrictions on freedom of expression continued in 2013. 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 repeatedly since 2011, most notably in separate campaigns against the former opposition newspaper Al-Wasat and its editor, Mansur al-Jamri. 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, who was arrested in 2012 for criticizing the government on the Twitter microblogging service, remained in prison during 2013. Zainab al-Khawaja, another prominent rights activist and daughter of high-profile imprisoned activist Abd al-Hadi al-Khawaja, also remained in prison during 2013 for criticizing the government.
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. After spending two years in hiding, he was escaped Bahrain to Great Britain in April. In July, prominent blogger and journalist Muhammad Hassan Sadef and photographer Hussain Hubail were arrested in anticipation of opposition protests planned for August 14. Sadef was released in October while Hubail remained in custody at year’s end. In May, six Bahrainis were sentenced to a year in jail for criticizing the king on Twitter. The government continued to block a number of opposition websites during the year, including those that broadcast live events, such as protests. In October police raided and shut down a public exhibition dedicated to the Arab Uprisings.
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. The government intensified its crackdown on prominent Shiite religious figures in 2013. Police raided the home of the country’s top religious scholar Issa Qassim in May, a move that promoted large protests and Al-Wefaq to boycott the National Dialogue for two weeks. In September, the Justice, Islamic Affairs and Endowments Ministry labeled the Islamic Scholars Council—the largest organization of Shiite clerics in Bahrain—an illegal organization and moved to have it dissolved.
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.
E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 1 / 12 (-1)
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. In July 2013, King Hamad decreed additions to Bahrain’s antiterrorism law that imposed heavy penalties on those convicted of demonstrating unlawfully, including large fines and the stripping of citizenship. The decree was the result of ongoing protests throughout the year and rising levels of violence. Several Bahraini protesters were killed by police in 2013, including an 8-year old boy who the opposition claimed was killed by tear gas in January. Hussain al-Jazeri was shot and killed by police in February while protesting. His brother Mahmud was also killed that same month. Several protesters were arrested and received prison sentences.
The 1989 Societies Law prohibits any 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 2012, as were delegations from the International Trade Union Confederation and the International Labour Organization. In April 2013 the government cancelled a visit by torture expert Juan Mendez, the UN special rapporteur on torture. In September, the Ministry of Justice ordered all groups to get government permission before meeting with non-Bahraini diplomats and officials in an effort to limit the amount of contact opposition and human rights networks have with potentially supportive foreign governments and international organizations. The order also required a government official to be present at any interaction.
Bahraini human rights defenders continued to be targeted in 2013. Sayed Muhafadha, a leading member of the outlawed Bahrain Center for Human Rights, was briefly detained in January. Naji Fateel of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights was arrested, tortured, and sentenced to 15 years in prison 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 2012, the government prevented a delegation from the International Trade Union Confederation and the International Labour Organization from entering the country to participate in the annual congress of the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions.
F. Rule of Law: 1 / 16
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.
Bahrain’s criminal courts and those responsible for personal status laws are largely beholden to political interests. The country’s judicial system is seen as corrupt and tilted in favor of the ruling family and its backers. Although Bahrain has criminalized torture and claims it does not hold political prisoners, its prisons are full of human rights and pro-democracy activists. Prison conditions are mixed. Prisoners report frequent rough treatment. While some detainees are periodically denied access to family and lawyers, others enjoy limited opportunities for phone calls and other amenities. In August, prisoners at the Dry Dock prison on the island of Muharraq rioted over poor conditions and for being denied family visits. Over 40 prisoners were injured.
In November 2011, the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) concluded that security personnel had used excessive force during the crackdown earlier that year. The BICI found no evidence that Iran or other foreign elements were behind the uprising, contradicting a key government claim. The regime implemented one BICI recommendation in July 2013, when it created a police ombudsman to investigate allegations of brutality and the excessive use of force by security forces. While several police were sentenced to prison terms during the year, including one unnamed officer who was sentenced to seven years in jail in February for killing a protester in 2011, sentences for those convicted of killing protesters have been light compared to political activists. In March, two others were sentenced to 10 years in prison for the death of Ali Issa Ibrahim Saqer while he was detained in 2011, but their prison sentences were reduced to five years by the High Criminal Court of Appeals in September. In December, two police officers, including a member of the royal family, were acquitted on charges that they had tortured doctors during the spring 2011.
Throughout the year, protesters were accused of detonating a series of car bombs targeting police; at least two police officers were killed and several others were injured in the bombings. Courts sentenced dozens of protesters to long prison terms for illegally protesting or on suspicion of complicity in bomb attacks. In September, nine boys under the age of 18 were abducted by security forces, allegedly tortured, and detained on charges that they were behind recent fire-bomb attacks. Hundreds children were arrested and detained during 2013, some being sentenced to jail, for allegedly participating in protests.
G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 6 / 16
The government continued to obstruct foreign travel by key opposition figures and activists in 2013. After having visited Bahrain earlier in the year, British Airways authorities denied Maryam al-Khawaja entry on a flight to Manama in August. 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.
X = Score Received
Y = Best Possible Score
Z = Change from Previous Year