Bahrain | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Freedom in the World 2017



Freedom Status: 
Not Free

Freedom in the World Scores

(1=Most Free, 7=Least Free)

Quick Facts

Press Freedom Status: 
Not Free
Net Freedom Status: 
Not Free

Once a promising model for political reform and democratic transition, Bahrain has become one of the Middle East’s most repressive states. Since violently crushing a popular prodemocracy protest movement in 2011, the Sunni-led monarchy has systematically eliminated a broad range of political rights and civil liberties, dismantled the political opposition, and cracked down harshly on persistent dissent in the Shiite population.

Key Developments: 
  • In July, the courts approved a government request to formally disband Al-Wefaq, the country’s largest opposition group, which draws its support from the Shiite Muslim majority.
  • The authorities continued to harass and detain leading political and human rights activists, including Nabeel Rajab, Ibrahim Sharif, and Ghada Jamsheer.
  • In June, the government revoked the citizenship of Isa Qassim, the country’s most important Shiite cleric, and charged him with money laundering.
  • Regular clashes between police and mostly Shiite protesters occurred throughout the year, and dozens of people were arrested or questioned for participating in a sit-in to show support for Qassim.
Executive Summary: 

The Bahraini authorities’ drive to outlaw peaceful political opposition intensified in 2016. In June, a court acting on a motion from the government suspended Al-Wefaq, a largely Shiite group that had long been the kingdom’s main opposition political society, and its assets were seized. The organization was accused of encouraging terrorism, extremism, and violence, as well as foreign interference in Bahraini affairs. A second court ruling formally dissolved Al-Wefaq in July. Its leader, Ali Salman, was sentenced by an appellate court in May to nine years in prison on charges including incitement of sectarian hatred. He had been arrested in 2014 and initially sentenced to four years in prison in 2015. The harsher penalty was confirmed after another appeal in December.

The government also took aim at the country’s highest-ranking Shiite cleric, Isa Qassim. In June, the Interior Ministry announced that Qassim had been stripped of his Bahraini nationality, adding to a growing list of regime critics whose citizenship has been revoked in recent years. Authorities claimed that Qassim had incited sectarianism and served foreign interests, alluding to long-standing state allegations that the Bahraini Shiite community is politically aligned with Iran. Qassim was also charged with money laundering. His supporters gathered outside his home and maintained a vigil through the end of the year to prevent his arrest, at times clashing with police in the area.

Other violent confrontations between protesters and security forces continued in 2016, leading to widespread arrests and a militarized police presence in predominantly Shiite villages and neighborhoods.

Bahraini authorities maintained legal pressure on outspoken activists during the year. Zaynab al-Khawaja was ordered to prison in March to serve a sentence of three years and one month for various convictions related to her criticism of the regime. She was released early in May, partly as a result of pressure from the United States, but she then left the country for Denmark, where she holds dual citizenship. Prominent activists including Nabeel Rajab and Ghada Jamsheer were also imprisoned during the year. Others, including Abdulnabi al-Ekry and the journalist Nazeha Saeed, were forbidden from traveling.

In July, the minister of information issued strict new guidelines for newspapers’ use of internet or social media to disseminate content, further limiting the press’s freedom to operate.

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