Erick Sottas, director general of the World Organisation Against Torture said that his organisation has "been condemning for years the cases of tortures in Bahrain. However, after the reforms, the issue of torture has been dealt with."
Parliamentary and municipal elections take place every four years, since the restoration of elections in 2002, when women were also given the vote for the first time as part of reforms by King Hamad. Bahrain has a bicameral legislature with the lower chamber of parliament, the (Council of Representatives of Bahrain), elected by universal suffrage, and the upper chamber, the (Shura Council), appointed directly by the King. Those represented in the Shura Council include members of Bahrain's Christian and Jewish communities.
The Prime Minister and government ministers are not elected. They are appointed directly by the King, but ministers can be removed by parliamentary no-confidence votes. The current Prime Minister, Khalifah ibn Sulman Al Khalifah, is the King's paternal uncle and has been in office since 1970. Twelve of the twenty-three cabinet ministers appointed in November 2006 are members of the Al Khalifa royal family.
Bahrain has a complex civil society, which pre-date the reforms introduced by King Hamad, and has its roots in the emergence of the labour movement and the development of an educated middle class in the 1930s. According to a 2006 study on civil society in Bahrain by the European University Institute, Voices in Parliament, Debates in Majalis, Banners on the Street: Avenues of Political Participation in Bahrain:
Generally, civil society has thriven, at least numerically. Bahrain’s NGOs are fragmented – many NGOs are really a spin-off of a political organisation and/or can draw only a narrow ethnic-sectarian segment to their activities. Generally the more elitist the NGO, the less narrowly defined its constituency in sectarian terms: Sectarianism does not play a role in many of the ‘arty’ clubs.
Contrary to views commonly held on Gulf states’ societies, Bahrain’s society offers a complex matrix of interlinking social institutions, understood in a broader anthropological sense. These can in varying degrees be mobilised for political ends.
Catering to the urban elites of both sects, the first clubs were opened in Manama earlier than in the rest of the Gulf region. Namely, the Uruba Club to which most prominent liberals are a member was founded in the early 1930s.
Other venues for political and social interactions are obviously the headquarters of political societies. Several of these also have regular weekly or monthly lecture days. Many headquarters of NGOs and trade unions are located very close to each other, since the king had donated a block of apartments for that purpose in 2001.
For the average politically active Bahraini, there are usually a number of outlets according to the European University Institute:
A typical male Bahraini with political interests has multiple affiliations: he is a member of a political society, has joined two or three NGOS in the first reform euphoria (related to human rights, women, environment), has been (since he entered his professional life) a member of a professional association. If Shiite, he attends ma’atim at least for holidays, and is involved in some charity, religious or through a local fund. It’s quite likely he is a regular to a majlis, the likelihood even increasing in case he is Sunni with tribal affiliations.
The government’s moves to join international treaties protecting human rights have often been opposed by parliament. The initial attempt to get parliamentary ratification of the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights was blocked in February 2006 on the grounds that leading MPs said contradicted Islamic laws. Al Menbar Bloc president Dr Salah Abdulrahman complained that the covenant would allow citizens to change religions without any restrictions, noting "This means that Muslims could convert to another religion, something against the Islamic law, since those who do so should be beheaded," he said. "Under the convention, women have the right to marry without their father's consent, while in Islam they should do so if she was a virgin".
It was not until June 2006 that a second attempt was made to ratify the country’s accession to the Covenant, meaning that Bahrain did not formally accede to the treaty until September 20 2006.
Civil society has been prominent in supporting specific legislation promoting human rights through parliament. One recent campaign is the call for Bahrain’s government to ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. It is being led by the Bahrain-branch of the Coalition for the International Criminal Court and wants the government to transfer the draft bill on ratification to parliament at the earliest. The Bahraini Coalition for the ICC is headed by Nasser Burdestani (who is also the head of the Bahrain-branch of Amnesty International), who commented:
"The fact that we in Bahrain do not suffer from such grave crimes that are within the court's jurisdiction should facilitate the process of ratification without any reservations."
Citing the role that Bahrain plays in the region and the domino effect, the Coalition for the International Criminal Court Co-ordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, Amal Basha, said Bahrain's ratification could have a significant impact among the neighbouring Gulf countries: "We believe that Bahrain could serve as a real catalyst by ratifying as soon as possible," she said. "It would provide a serious boost to the growing world movement to ensure accountability for the worst violations of international human rights and humanitarian law."
Bahrain has a complex confessional mix, with a population composed of Sunni and Shia Arabs, Persians, Huwalas, Jews and long standing Indians. In addition, since the oil boom the population has been swollen by hundreds of thousands of immigrants, mainly from the Indian sub-continent, south east Asia and elsewhere in the Arab world.
The government is composed of Sunni and Shia Ministers, and has faced accusations that it is discriminating in favour of both Sunnis and Shias. In August 2007, Bahrain’s Labour Ministry was accused by MP Mohammed Khalid of sectarianism and discriminating against Sunni job applicants after thousands of discarded job application forms from the Ministry were found dumped in municipal trash cans . In 2007, it was announced by the Education Ministry that school would be given new religion courses that promote respect for different sects through encouraging studies of the various Sunni and Shiite schools of thought, and highlighting common features. The move follows calls by Shiite scholars and MPs for changes in school textbooks and for giving Shiite sects greater prominence in the syllabus, following criticism of previous syllabus that was seen by some as questioning some facets of Shiite belief.
More controversially, the Education Ministry was criticised when it included a question about sectarianism in tenth grade students' final examination in May 2007, asking them to write on "how sectarianism is now plaguing societies, weakening their capacities, undermining the efforts of its people and diverting them from the objectives of development and progress". In response to complaints from parents that students, mostly 16 years old, were too young to understand the issue of sectarianism and should not have been asked political questions in an exam that tested their creative writing aptitudes, the Ministry’s Widad Al Mousawi, responded: "By answering the questions, students express their rejection of this dangerous phenomenon. We have to be fair. If we ask students to write about drugs, does that mean that we are promoting the use of drugs? We should not hide our heads in the sand. We are looking at issues that reflect the maturity of the students and their skills in expressing their views on social issues”.
Elections and the reconstitution of parliament have been accompanied by a strengthening of previously banned Islamist political societies, and policies advocated by them are now on the public agenda. Al Wefaq, Bahrain’s main Shia Islamist opposition party, has for several years tried to introduce racial segregation, calling for the removal of third world immigrants from predominately Bahraini areas. In 2004, the head of Manama City Council, Al Wefaq’s Murthader Bader, called for the introduction of racial segregation in the city with the removal of South Asian nationals to other parts of the country. Racial segregation it was argued would best address tensions between locals and third world expatriates that saw race riots against immigrants in March 2004. In 2006, the call was reiterated by Al Wefaq councillor Sadiq Rahma who said Asians 'make the neighbourhood dirty' . The move has been criticised by Bahraini human rights groups as a 'a violation of basic human rights' . After 2006’s elections, the party’s Abdullah Al A’ali used his parliamentary platform to call for legislation to restrict expatriate labour away from Bahraini families, saying "Labourers who now live in neighbourhoods with Bahraini families should be given a grace period to relocate before they face legal action."
There was a flurry of race hate message sent to naturalized Bahrainis from third world countries after opposition political leaders alleged that immigration was tantamount to ‘cultural genocide’. In November 2006, Al Ayam published a collection of threats sent to naturalized citizens warning that they would have to ‘choose between the suitcase and the coffin’, promising ‘Death and fire are your destiny’ and another warned that the author hated all naturalized Bahrainis, "You are detested. You have taken from us, the sons of Bahrain, our homes, jobs and education opportunities. You will face the same destiny as the Egyptians in Iraq [after the end of the Iraq-Iran war]. It will be nails, hammers and a coffin. Your destiny is near."
According to the Freedom of the Media in the Arab Countries 2006 report, Bahrain has one of the freest presses in the Arab Middle East, with only Iraq and Jordan scoring higher. The report said that state control of the media in Bahrain was categorised at 1.39 per cent, compared to 11.11pc in Saudi Arabia and 15.28pc in Libya. The 25-page found that newspaper censorship was also among the lowest in the region, along with the seizure of machines and documents from newspaper offices. The further development of the Bahraini press has been a point of public discussion between journalists, proprietors, ministers and MPs.
The Penal Code of 1976, still active today, has been widely criticized by local and international human rights bodies for granting the regime widespread powers to suppress dissent. Human Rights Watch noted that the Penal Code gives the government "wide latitude to suppress public criticism and that it "has provisions that contradict international human rights standards. Amnesty International in 2004 stated the Code can be used "as a justification to restrict freedom of expression. The organization reiterates its call for the Code to be reviewed as soon a possible to ensure compliance with international human rights standards.
The Constitution states that Islam is the official religion and that Shari'a (Islamic law) is a principal source for legislation. Article 22 of the Constitution provides for freedom of conscience, the inviolability of worship, and the freedom to perform religious rites and hold religious parades and meetings, in accordance with the customs observed in the country; however, the Government placed some limitations on the exercise of this right. The Government continued to exert a level of control and to monitor both Sunni and Shi'a Muslims, and there continued to be government discrimination against Shi'a Muslims in certain fields. Members of other religious groups who practice their faith privately do so without interference from the Government. There were occasional reports of incidents between the Government and elements of the Shi'a majority population, who were often critical of the Sunni-controlled Government's rule. Problems continued to exist, stemming primarily from the Government's perceived unequal treatment of Shi'a in the country.
Bahrain has eight daily newspapers representing a broad section of opinion. In 2002, Al Wasat was set up by Mansoor Al-Jamri, the son of Bahrain's spiritual Shi'a leader, Sheikh Abdul-Amir Al-Jamri and the spokesman of the Bahrain Freedom Movement. The paper is as broadly sympathetic to the Shia Islamist opposition, particularly Ali Salman. Akhbar Al Khaleej has traditionally been close to Bahrain's Left and Arab nationalist strands, featuring controversial columnists such as Sameera Rajab. Al Ayam is seen as solidly pro-government, with its proprietor an advisor to the King.
The Press Law 47 of 2002 has been strongly criticised as restrictive as it specifies criminal charges against those who criticise the head of state or Islam, or "threaten national security". However, discussion in the newspapers is often robust with journalists frequently criticising government ministers: for instance one newspaper recently criticised the Minister of Housing, Fahmi Al Jowder, for lavishing "ludicrous praise" on the King.
In October 2006, the Criminal Court issued a ban on the publication of any news, information or commentary on the series of allegations in the Bandargate scandal, which has continued to date.. In the following weeks, the Ministry of Information ordered Bahraini ISPs to block several websites that violated the ban, include the websites of National Democratic Action (liberal opposition political society), the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and the Arab Network for Human Rights Information. The block order was accompanied by press statements from the Ministry threatening the website owners with legal action.
Many political websites and blogs are blocked by the government , and as of November 2005 the government requires all Bahraini websites are required to register with the Ministry of Information. In August 2006, Bahraini government authorities blocked internet access to Google Earth and Google Video.
Liberal intellectuals in the press have faced concerted campaigns against them by Islamists. In 2005, hundreds of Shia Islamists protested outside the Al Ayam's offices after it published a cartoon on Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's election victory; while a Sunni Islamist campaign against the paper's editor, Isa Al Shaygi, was condemned at a conference of the International Federation of Journalists: “The vicious and unprovoked attack on a respected and distinguished colleague is an example of the intolerant and undemocratic character of extremist politics that is increasingly being used against the free press.
All broadcast media is owned and managed by the government. In 2005, three website administrators were arrested by security forces.
New political freedoms mean that public political activity and demonstrations are a common occurrence: according to the Ministry of Interior’s figures there were 498 street demonstrations in 2006, up from 259 the previous year
In July 2005, Human Rights Watch said:
Bahrain has been a poster child for political reform in the Middle East, but police attacks like this one are a worrisome trend. [...] Bahrain is growing more repressive in response to peaceful political activism.
Despite this prediction, the European University Institute, in its study of civil society in Bahrain in 2006, Voices in Parliament, Debates in Majalis, Banners on the Street: Avenues of Political Participation in Bahrain, found that:
Demonstrations of all sorts occur on a regular bases – less than common in the region. The laws regulating rallies and demonstrations predate the reforms; a bill for a new one has not yet been passed by parliament. As is the case with press freedom, a general liberal practise without the necessary legal foundation can be assessed. Normally neither the government nor the security forces interfere with demonstrations – unless feeling threatened. This lack of legal certainty is obviously wanted: ‘You have to see what we practice, not what is written in laws. Our practise is very liberal. One also has to see in which part of the world we’re living’ says the then head of the central informatics organisation and now minister of the royal court, Sheikh Mohammed bin Atiyatallah Al Khalifa.
Bahrain is the only country in the Middle East to have sacked a senior government minister as a direct result of a human rights issue. In 2004, when the security forces fired rubber bullets at a demonstration led by Shia religious leaders, King Hamad immediately fired the country’s longstanding Interior Minister (and member of the royal family) Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa Al Khalifa.
The Interior Ministry had to resist pressure in May 2007 from business leaders to ‘crack down’ on the rioters, as well as deal with concerns that local residents would take matters into their own hands and deal with the rioters themselves. Concerns about vigilantism resulted in a call by Central Municipal Council vice-chairman Abbas Mahfoodh for closer cooperation between politicians and the Interior Ministry to stamp out rioting, after residents of the town of Tubli confronted and chased away three masked men who allegedly planned to commit acts of sabotage using Molotov cocktail firebombs.
In a report issued in 2006, the "Arab Network for Human Rights Information" (a member of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange) documented two cases of human rights activists being harassed by government authorities, through physical and sexual assaults, and fabricated cases.
King Hamad’s moves to promote women’s rights have been described by Amnesty International as representing a “New Dawn for Bahraini Women”. In 2002, women voted for the first time in national elections and were given equal political rights.
However, these top-down reforms have proven contentious, with calls for reform opposed by conservatives and the royal family. In 2002 the decision by King Hamad to grant women the right to vote and equal political rights with men was opposed by a majority of Bahraini women, with 60% of women surveyed saying they disagreed with the move. Salafists have publicly restated their opposition to women's participation in parliament, and none of the Islamist parties that dominate parliament has ever fielded a female candidate. One woman won a seat in parliament in 2006, although her victory in the sparsely populated constituency in the south of the country was seen by some as engineered by the government which wanted to see a woman represented in Council of Deputies.
A bill prompted by women's rights activists in 2005 to introduce a unified personal status law to protect women's rights in marriage, divorce and other family matters was opposed in a series of large-scale demonstrations organised by an alliance of salafists and Shia Islamists including Al Wefaq and Asalah. The demonstrations (and the implicit threat of escalation by those who organised them) forced the government to withdraw the law and was seen as a major defeat for women's rights activists.
In response to sweeping poll victories by Islamists in 2006's election, Amnesty International Bahrain's head of campaigns, Fawzia Rabea, described the threat to women's rights as 'very serious' and called on women to do everything in their power to fight laws proposed by the new parliament that could limit their freedom. After newly elected Al Wefaq MP, Sayed Abdulla Al A'ali, called for legislation to restrict women's employment rights by banning women from "male-orientated jobs", Ms Rabea said, "With this type of thinking I am sure we are facing a very big challenge with parliament. I am worried about this, it is very serious." Bahrain Women's Union president, Mariam Al Ruwaie, expressed surprised at the MP's suggestions, "This does not agree with His Majesty the King's reforms, which give women and men the same rights for education and work. In Bahrain's society women make up 26 per cent of the labour force, there are more girls in schools and universities than men and their results are better...I am worried because the parliament has not started and he [Mr Al A'ali] has said something like this. It is a bad start.
Ghada Jamsheer, the most prominent women's rights activist in Bahrain has called the government's reforms "artificial and marginal". In a statement in December 2006 she said:
The government is using the family law issue as a bargaining tool with opposition Islamic groups. This is evident through the fact that the authorities raise this issue when ever they want to distract attention from other controversial political issues. While no serious steps are taken to help approve this law, although the government and its puppet National Assembly had no trouble in the last four years when it came to approving restrictive laws related to basic freedoms.
All of this is why no one in Bahrain believes in Government clichés and government institution like the High Council for Women. The government used women’s rights as a decorative tool on the international level. While the High Council for Women was used to hinder non-governmental women societies and to block the registration of the Women Union for many years. Even when the union was recently registered, it was restricted by the law on societies.
According to the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions annual report of 2006 unions are allowed to play an "effective role" with workers having the right to unionise. According to the ICTFU's annual report:
The Workers' Trade Union Law of September 2002 introduced the right to belong to trade unions in Bahrain. It established the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions (GFBTU) but not full freedom of association, as all trade unions have to belong to the GFBTU. Workers in the private and public sector may join trade unions, including non-citizens, who make up the majority of Bahrain's workforce.
Only one trade union may be formed at each establishment, but no prior authorisation is required to form a union. The only requirement is that the union's constitution must be communicated to the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, together with the names of the founding members.
An amended trade union law that would allow government employees to form trade unions but would remove some workers rights' protection was submitted to Parliament in October 2004. However it had still not been approved by the end of 2005.
Trade unions are not subject to administrative dissolution. They may not engage in political activities.
The ICFTU's main concern in its 2006 report was that a new labour law would be far more restrictive of worker's rights. The ICFTU commented:
A new law, soon to be passed, looks set to restrict unions' freedom to carry out a legal strike. There was much concern about the lack of proper protection foreseen for foreign workers who make up 60 per cent of the workforce. The head of Gulf Air's union was sacked shortly after his election.
A visiting delegate from the International Labour Organization at a seminar in Bahrain on trade unionism, held under the patronage of the Labour Ministry, described some of Bahrain's labour laws as out of line with international standards. According to the ILO international labour standards department deputy director, Karen Curtis, the current rules governing where strikes can be held in Bahrain were too restrictive.
In response to the government’s labour reforms, Bahrain’s Crown Prince, Sheikh Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, was invited as guest of honour to the International Labour Organisation’s 96th session, where he used the opportunity of addressing the conference to announce that the first regional dialogue on workers' issues would be held in Bahrain. "This will offer countries that recruit manpower and those that provide it an opportunity to engage in an open and honest discussion on the impact of globalisation. The ILO Director General Juan Somavia has described the Crown Prince as an innovator with a modern vision of commitment to change and a belief in dialogue. Somavia has noted that Bahrain had been one of the pioneers of Decent Work Country Programmes, beginning with a pilot programme in 2002.
Unlike other countries in the region migrant workers are entitled to join trade unions and have even organised public demonstrations, with one group of Indian workers marching to the Labour Ministry in Isa Town to highlight their dispute with the company that employed them.
In 2007, government passed legislation to ban construction and other outdoor work between noon and 4pm during the summer – the hottest times of the day. The vast majority of those involved in this type of work being expatriate labourers from the Indian sub-continent. The move was backed by a “massive” labour inspection campaign by the Ministry of Labour to ensure that companies obeyed the decision. The ban was criticized by construction companies saying that the government’s decision would delay their projects, but according to the Ministry of Labour, migrant workers' protection representatives and human rights activities have welcomed the move.
An ICFTU Annual Report 2006 found that "Foreign workers harshly treated":
There are a large number of foreign workers and, while in theory they are allowed to join unions and run for union office, they mainly prefer to stay out of union activities as they have no protection against dismissal. According to the proposed legislation, if expatriate workers overstay their work permits, they suffer heavy fines, are imprisoned for unspecified lengths of time and then deported. The government admitted that the new law would not give domestic servants any employment rights, but contained measures that would protect them against abuse from employers.
A new trade union for the construction industry is expected to be launched by the end of 2007, which will particularly benefit migrant workers as they are very over represented in the construction sector. As of July 2007, the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Union has already held several meetings and a workshop with Geneva-based Building and Wood Workers' International (BWI) to discuss the proposal. Construction is said to be the biggest industry for expatriates in Bahrain and an estimated 95,000 workers are employed within the sector, and the new BWI-affiliated union would protect their rights and address issues such as health and safety issues, working hours, pay rates and workers' accommodation.