Freedom in the World
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Freedom in the World Scores
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 2017:
- In April, the king approved a constitutional amendment that enabled military trials for civilians who “threaten the security of the state.”
- The government dissolved the country’s largest secular opposition political society, the National Democratic Action Society, in May.
- In June, the authorities shuttered Al-Wasat, the country’s only independent and critical newspaper, indefinitely.
POLITICAL RIGHTS: 2 / 40
A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 2 / 12
A1. Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 0 / 4
The 2002 constitution gives the king power over the executive, legislative, and judicial authorities. The monarch appoints and dismisses the prime minister and cabinet members, who are responsible to him rather than the legislature. Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, who has served as prime minister since independence from Britain in 1971, is the uncle of the current king, Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa.
A2. Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 1 / 4
The king appoints the 40-member 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.
Al-Wefaq, a largely Shiite group that has long been the kingdom’s main opposition political society, boycotted legislative elections in 2014. Largely progovernment independents won 37 of the 40 lower house seats, and the remainder went to two Sunni Muslim political societies. The government reported voter turnout of more than 50 percent, while the opposition estimated that less than 30 percent of eligible voters participated. The two sides also accused each other of engaging in voter intimidation.
A3. Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 1 / 4
Bahrain’s electoral framework is unfair, with electoral districts deliberately designed to underrepresent Shiites, who form a majority of the citizen population. The government has also allegedly drawn district borders to put certain political societies, including leftist and Sunni Islamist groups, at a disadvantage. The government directorate responsible for administering elections is headed by the justice minister, a member of the royal family, and is not an independent body.
B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 0 / 16
B1. Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 0 / 4
Formal political parties are illegal, and a 2005 law makes it illegal to form political associations based on class, profession, or religion. A 2016 amendment bans serving religious clerics from engaging in political activity. For many years, political societies were allowed to operate after registering with the government, but the authorities have recently shuttered the country’s main opposition societies. Al-Wefaq was forcibly disbanded in 2016 for allegedly encouraging violence. Bahrain’s second-largest opposition group, the secular National Democratic Action Society (Wa’ad), was banned in May 2017 after it criticized the execution of three men on terrorism charges in January and expressed solidarity with Al-Wefaq following its dissolution.
The regime has also cracked down on opposition leaders. Al-Wefaq’s general secretary, Ali Salman, was arrested on various incitement charges in 2014 and fought a series of legal battles, finally receiving a four-year prison sentence from the Court of Cassation in April 2017. However, in November he faced new charges for allegedly conspiring with Qatar’s government in 2011. Ibrahim Sharif, the former general secretary of Wa’ad, was charged in March 2017 for criticizing the government on Twitter; he had already served several years in prison since 2011.
B2. Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 0 / 4
The ruling family maintains a monopoly on political power, and the system excludes the possibility of a change in government through elections. Shiite opposition forces chose to boycott the 2014 legislative elections rather than participate in an unfair process, and the recent bans on Al-Wefaq and Wa’ad further reduced the possibility that the opposition could increase its representation in the 2018 elections.
B3. Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 0 / 4
The monarchy generally excludes the public from any meaningful political participation. Since 2011 it has used the security forces to isolate the country’s Shiite population and suppress political dissent.
B4. Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 0 / 4
Although Shiites make up a majority of the country’s citizens, they have long been vastly underrepresented in both chambers of the National Assembly and the cabinet, and the Sunni-led regime is committed to preventing them from organizing independently to advance their political interests. Women formally enjoy full political rights, but they are marginalized in practice, holding just three seats in the Council of Representatives and nine in the upper house. Noncitizens make up just over half of the total population and have no political rights.
C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 3 / 12
C1. Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 1 / 4
The king and other unelected officials hold most authority over the development and implementation of laws and policies. The National Assembly may propose legislation to the government, but it is the government that drafts and submits the bills for consideration by the legislature. With the main opposition groups no longer participating in the National Assembly, the body has become increasingly moribund.
C2. Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 2 / 4
There are some laws in place to combat corruption, but enforcement is weak, and high-ranking officials suspected of corruption are rarely punished.
C3. Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 0 / 4
Parliamentary proceedings are public, but the government issues orders and laws without providing insight or allowing public consultation on their development. There is no law guaranteeing public access to government information, and officials are not obliged to disclose their assets or income.
ADDITIONAL DISCRETIONARY POLITICAL RIGHTS QUESTION
Is the government or occupying power deliberately changing the ethnic composition of a country or territory so as to destroy a culture or tip the political balance in favor of another group? −3 / 0
The government has made concerted efforts to erode the Shiite citizen majority and tip the country’s demographic balance in favor of the Sunni minority, mostly by recruiting foreign-born Sunnis to serve in the security forces and become citizens. Meanwhile, hundreds of Bahrainis have had their citizenship revoked in recent years, including a number of Shiite leaders and activists. Since 2011, the government has maintained a heavy security presence in primarily Shiite villages. Security personnel restrict the movements of Shiite citizens and periodically destroy their property.
CIVIL LIBERTIES: 10 / 60
D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 2 / 16
D1. Are there free and independent media? 0 / 4
The government owns all broadcast media outlets, and the private owners of Bahrain’s main newspapers have close ties to the state. Self-censorship is encouraged by the vaguely worded Press Law, which allows the state to imprison journalists for criticizing the king or Islam or for threatening national security. Insulting the king is punishable by up to seven years in prison. The government continues to block a number of opposition websites. A 2016 edict regulates newspapers’ use of the internet and social media to disseminate content, and requires the outlets to apply for a one-year renewable license. Authorities blocked access to Qatari news outlets as diplomatic relations with Qatar broke down during 2017, and a June decision by the Interior Ministry prohibited published expressions of sympathy or support for Qatar, with a penalty of up to five years in prison.
Journalists continued to face legal and bureaucratic obstacles to their work in practice. France 24 correspondent Nazeha Saeed, originally charged in 2016, was fined in May 2017 for working for foreign outlets without a license. Bahraini authorities have refused to renew the credentials of at least four other Bahraini journalists working with foreign media outlets. In June, the government shut down the country’s only independent newspaper, Al-Wasat, citing its coverage of antigovernment protests in Morocco. Six journalists remained behind bars as of December 2017, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
D2. Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 1 / 4
Islam is the state religion. However, non-Muslim minorities are generally free to practice their faiths. Muslim and non-Muslim religious groups are required to register with government ministries, though the government has not actively punished groups that operate without permits.
The Islamic Ulema Council, a Shiite group, was banned in 2014. Shiite clerics and community leaders often face harassment, interrogation, prosecution, and imprisonment, typically due to allegations that they have incited sectarian hatred or violence. Some Sunnis have also been charged with such offenses. The government revoked the citizenship of senior Shiite cleric Isa Qassim in 2016, and he was given a suspended one-year prison sentence for money laundering in May 2017. Other Shiite clergy were among those detained or questioned for allegedly participating in a sustained sit-in protest around Qassim’s home that led to clashes with security forces. Protests and police restrictions periodically obstruct access to mosques.
D3. Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 0 / 4
Academic freedom is not formally restricted, but scholars who criticize the government are subject to dismissal. In 2011, a number of faculty members and administrators were fired for supporting the call for democracy, and hundreds of students were expelled. Those who remained were forced to sign loyalty pledges.
D4. Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 1 / 4
There are strong suspicions that security forces use networks of informers, and that the government monitors the personal communications of activists, critics, and opposition members. Users of social media have faced criminal charges for their online comments.
E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 1 / 12
E1. Is there freedom of assembly? 0 / 4
Citizens must obtain a permit to hold demonstrations, and a variety of onerous restrictions make it difficult to organize a legal gathering in practice. Police regularly use force to break up political protests, most of which occur in Shiite villages. Participants can face long jail terms, particularly if the demonstrations involve clashes with security personnel. In May 2017, security forces attempted to clear sit-in protesters from around the home of Isa Qassim in the village of Diraz, killing five of the protesters and arresting more than 280 others amid the clashes that ensued.
E2. Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 0 / 4
Nongovernmental organizations are prohibited from operating without a permit, and authorities have broad discretion to deny or revoke permits. Bahraini human rights defenders and their family members are subject to harassment, intimidation, and prosecution. Nabeel Rajab, head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, remained in detention throughout 2017 after his arrest in 2016, and in July he was sentenced to two years in prison for disseminating “false news” that undermined the “prestige and status” of the kingdom. Rajab had suffered harsh treatment in prison and faced more than 15 years of additional imprisonment on other pending charges, including for his criticism of Bahrain’s support for the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen.
E3. Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 1 / 4
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. Trade unions cannot operate in the public sector, and collective-bargaining rights are limited even in the private sector. Harassment and firing of unionist workers occurs in practice. Household servants, agricultural workers, and temporary workers do not have the right to join or form unions.
F. RULE OF LAW: 1 / 16
F1. Is there an independent judiciary? 0 / 4
The king appoints all judges and heads the Supreme Judicial Council, and courts are subject to government pressure. The country’s judicial system is seen as corrupt and biased in favor of the royal family and its allies.
F2. Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 1 / 4
Law enforcement officers reportedly violate due process during arrests and detention, in part by obstructing detainees’ access to attorneys. Detainees are sometimes held incommunicado in practice. Judicial proceedings often put defendants at a disadvantage, with judges denying bail requests or restricting defense attorneys’ attendance or arguments without explanation. The government claims it does not hold political prisoners, but scores of opposition figures, human rights and democracy advocates, and ordinary citizens have been jailed for their political views and activities.
In January 2017, the government restored the National Security Agency’s power to make arrests, which had been revoked in a 2011 reform; the domestic intelligence agency has been accused of torture and other abuses. In April, the constitution was amended to permit military trials for civilians in security-related cases, further threatening due process rights. In December, a military court sentenced a Shiite soldier and five Shiite civilians to death for alleged terrorism offenses.
F3. Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 0 / 4
Torture is criminalized, but detainees frequently report mistreatment by security forces and prison officials, who are rarely held accountable for abuse. The police ombudsman’s office has failed to provide a meaningful check on such impunity.
In January 2017, three Shiite men were executed by firing squad for allegedly killing police officers in 2014. The men received an unfair trial and were reportedly subjected to torture. The executions were the first in the kingdom since 2010.
Police have been targeted in small bombings and armed attacks in recent years. Four officers were reportedly killed over the course of 2017, including one in a bomb attack on a police bus in October.
F4. Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 0 / 4
Women enjoy legal equality on some issues, and gender-based discrimination in employment is prohibited. Nevertheless, discrimination is common in practice, and women are generally at a disadvantage in matters of family law.
In addition to the discrimination faced by certain ethnic communities, particularly Shiites of both Arab and Persian ethnicity, discrimination based on sexual orientation is common. The law does not provide protections against such bias, though same-sex sexual activity is not criminalized for those aged 21 and older.
G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 6 / 16
G1. Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 1 / 4
Authorities restrict movement inside the country for residents of largely Shiite villages outside Manama, where the government maintains a heavy security presence. The government also obstructs foreign travel by numerous opposition figures and activists. In 2017, officials prevented activists from traveling to participate in a UN human rights review of Bahrain.
G2. Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 2 / 4
Although registered businesses are largely free to operate, obtaining approval can be difficult in practice. Legal reforms in recent years have sought to lower the capital requirements and other obstacles to registering and operating businesses. For the wealthy elites who dominate the business sector, property rights are generally respected and expropriation is rare. However, Shiite citizens encounter difficulties obtaining affordable housing and in some cases face bans on purchasing land. Women may inherit property, but their rights are not equal to those of men.
G3. Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 2 / 4
Personal status issues such as marriage, divorce, and child custody are governed by a unified family law ratified by the king in July 2017. Previously only a Sunni family code was in place, with Shiite personal status matters adjudicated by Shiite religious courts according to their interpretation of Islamic jurisprudence. Some Shiite leaders objected to the new law. The law’s provisions are still based on Sharia (Islamic law) principles that put women at a disadvantage on many issues.
Citizenship generally must be inherited from a Bahraini father, and foreign men married to Bahraini women do not have access to naturalization.
Accused rapists can avoid punishment by marrying their victims, and spousal rape is not specifically outlawed. Adultery is illegal, and those who kill a spouse caught in the act of adultery are eligible for lenience in sentencing.
G4. Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 1 / 4
Some employers subject migrant workers to forced labor, and there are reports that abusers withhold workers’ documentation in order to prevent them from leaving or reporting abuse to the authorities. The government has taken steps to combat human trafficking in recent years, but efforts to investigate and prosecute perpetrators remain weak. Bahrain rolled out a new “flexible” work permit in July 2017 that would allow some expatriate workers to be their own sponsors. However, the permit is prohibitively expensive for household workers and laborers who have been historically exploited.