Bahrain is a constitutional, hereditary monarchy. King Hamad Bin Isa al-Khalifa, the head of state, appoints the cabinet, consisting of 24 ministers; 12 of those ministers were members of the al-Khalifa ruling family. The king, who holds ultimate authority over most government decisions, also appoints the prime minister, the head of government, who does not have to be a member of parliament. Parliament consists of an appointed upper house, the Shura (Consultative) Council, and the elected Council of Representatives, each with 40 seats. The country holds parliamentary elections every four years, and according to the government, 67 percent of eligible voters participated in elections held on November 24. Two formerly prominent opposition parties, al-Wifaq and Wa’ad, did not participate in the elections due to their dissolution by the courts in 2016 and 2017, respectively. The government did not permit international election monitors. Domestic monitors generally concluded authorities administered the elections without significant procedural irregularities.
Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.
Human rights issues included allegations of torture; arbitrary detention; political prisoners; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; restrictions on freedom of expression, the press, and the internet, including censorship, site blocking, and criminal libel; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including restrictions on independent nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) from freely operating in the country; significant restrictions on freedom of movement, including bans on international travel and revocation of citizenship; and restrictions on political participation, including the banning of former members of al-Wifaq and Wa’ad from standing as candidates in the elections.
The government occasionally prosecuted low-level security force members accused of human rights abuses, following investigations by government or quasi-governmental institutions. Nonetheless, due to the frequently slow and ineffective nature of investigations, impunity remained a problem.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution provides for freedom of speech and the press, “provided that the fundamental beliefs of Islamic doctrine are not infringed, the unity of the people is not prejudiced, and discord and sectarianism are not aroused.” The government limited freedom of speech and the press through active prosecution of individuals under libel, slander, and national security laws that targeted citizen and professional journalists, and by passing legislation to limit speech in print and social media.
Freedom of Expression: The law forbids any speech that infringes on public order or morals. While individuals openly expressed critical opinions regarding domestic political and social issues in private settings, those who expressed such opinions publicly often faced repercussions. During the year the government took steps against what it considered acts of civil disobedience, which included critical speech, under charges of unlawful assembly or “insulting the king.” The penal code allows penalties of no less than one year and no more than seven years’ imprisonment, plus a fine, for anyone who “offends the monarch of the Kingdom of Bahrain, the flag, or the national emblem.” In November media and human rights organizations reported that security forces detained former parliamentarian Ali Rashed al-Asheeri tweeting his intention to boycott the 2018 parliamentary elections. He was released from detention on November 27, although charges were still pending. In a significant decrease from 2017, there were five cases of “inciting hatred against a religious sect” and 510 cases of misuse of a telecommunications device.
On December 31, the Court of Cassation upheld a five-year prison sentence against Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) president Nabeel Rajab for tweets in 2015 criticizing the Saudi-led coalition’s military operations in Yemen and treatment of prisoners in Jaw Prison. Police initially arrested Rajab for these actions in 2016 and charged him with “spreading false news and statements and malicious rumors,” “insulting a neighboring country,” “insulting a statutory body,” and “spreading rumors during wartime.” At the time of his conviction, Rajab was already serving a two-year sentence for “spreading false information and malicious rumors” as a result of interviews with the foreign press. On April 19, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention determined that the government arbitrarily detained Nabeel Rajab.
Press and Media Freedom: The government did not own any print media, but the Ministry of Information Affairs and other government entities exercised considerable control over privately owned domestic print media.
The government owned and operated all domestic radio and television stations. Audiences generally received radio and television broadcasts in Arabic, Farsi, and English from countries in the region, including by satellite, without interference. The ministry reviewed all books and publications prior to issuing printing licenses. The Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs reviewed books that discussed religion.
In June 2017 the Ministry of Information Affairs ordered the indefinite suspension of the only independent newspaper operating in the country, al-Wasat. Later that month the newspaper’s board of directors terminated the paper’s 160 employees, claiming they were unable to keep al-Wasat open due to the suspension. The government accused al-Wasat of publishing content “offensive to a sisterly Arab state” when it covered protests in Morocco. Since the closure of the newspaper, opposition perspectives were only available via online media sources based outside the country, some of which the government blocked.
Violence and Harassment: According to local journalists and human rights groups, authorities sometimes harassed, arrested, or threatened journalists, photographers, and “citizen journalists” active on social media due to their reporting. Authorities claimed, however, that some individuals who identified themselves as journalists and photographers were associated with violent opposition groups and produced propaganda and recruiting videos for these groups. International media representatives reported difficulty in obtaining visas to work as journalists. The government brought criminal complaints against journalists who worked without accreditation. The government arrested or deported individuals engaged in journalism who were in the country on other types of visas.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Government censorship occurred. Ministry of Information Affairs personnel actively monitored and blocked stories on matters deemed sensitive, especially those related to sectarianism, national security, or criticism of the royal family, the Saudi royal family, or the judiciary. Journalists widely practiced self-censorship. Some members of media reported government officials contacted editors directly and told them to stop publishing articles, press releases, or stories on certain subjects.
The press and publications law prohibits anti-Islamic content in media and mandates imprisonment for “exposing the state’s official religion to offense and criticism.” The law states, “Any publication that prejudices the ruling system of the country and its official religion can be banned from publication by a ministerial order.”
Libel/Slander Laws: The government enforced libel and national security-related laws restricting freedom of the press. The penal code prohibits libel, slander, and “divulging secrets,” and it stipulates a punishment of imprisonment for no more than two years or a fine of no more than 200 dinars ($530). Application of the slander law was selective. The Ministry of Interior reported the government fined or imprisoned 19 individuals for “slander,” “libel,” or “divulging secrets” between January and September.
National Security: National security-related law provides for fines up to 10,000 dinars ($26,500) and prison sentences of at least six months for criticizing the king or inciting actions that undermine state security, as well as fines of up to 2,000 dinars ($5,300) for 14 related offenses. Punishable activities include publicizing statements issued by a foreign state or organization before obtaining ministry approval, publishing any reports that may adversely affect the dinar’s value, reporting any offense against a head of a state that maintains diplomatic relations with the country, and publishing offensive remarks concerning an accredited representative of a foreign country due to acts connected with the person’s position.
The government blocked access to some websites from inside the country, including some opposition-linked websites. The government continued blocking Qatari news websites such as al-Jazeera, al-Sharq, and Raya, an action it began after cutting relations with Qatar in June 2017. The government restricted internet freedom and monitored individuals’ online activities, including via social media, leading to degradation of internet and mobile phone services for some neighborhoods and to legal action against some internet users.
Political and human rights activists reported being interrogated by security forces regarding their postings on social media. They sometimes reported repeated interrogations that included threats against their physical safety and that of their families, threats against their livelihood, and threats of denial of social services such as housing and education. Several activists reported shutting down or deciding to cease posting to their social media accounts because of the threats.
According to the International Telecommunication Union, approximately 96 percent of citizens used the internet in 2017.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
The government restricted academic freedom and cultural events. Some academics engaged in self-censorship, avoiding discussion of contentious political issues.
Human rights advocates claimed government officials unfairly distributed university scholarships and were biased against Shia students, for both political and religious reasons, when admitting students into certain programs. The government continued using interviews in the university selection process, partially to correct for grade inflation, as there is no national standardized test to account for different grading practices across secondary schools; however, students reported authorities questioned them on their political beliefs and those of their families during interviews. The government maintained it distributed all scholarships and made all placements based on merit.
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
The constitution provides for the right of free assembly, but a number of laws restrict the exercise of this right. The Ministry of Interior maintained a prohibition on public demonstrations, stating that the purpose was to maintain public order in view of sectarian attacks in the region and that the ban was expected to be temporary in nature. Prior to the ban, the government limited and controlled political gatherings, and activists reported the government denied permits for organized demonstrations by refusing to accept application paperwork. For the fourth year, there were no authorized demonstrations, although the ministry generally did not intervene in peaceful, unauthorized demonstrations, including spontaneous labor demonstrations. For the third year, the government declined to issue permits for a “May Day” rally in support of workers’ rights by thousands of members of the more than 45 trade unions affiliated with the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions (GFBTU). According to the government, there were no applications submitted to hold a demonstration or protest during the year.
The law outlines the locations and times during which it prohibits functions, including areas close to hospitals, airports, commercial locations, security-related facilities, and downtown Manama. The General Directorate of the Police may prevent a public meeting if it violates security or public order, or for any other serious reason. The law states that mourners may not turn funeral processions into political rallies and that security officials may be present at any public gathering.
The law states every public gathering shall have a committee consisting of a head and at least two members. The committee is responsible for supervising and preventing any illegal acts during the function. According to the law, the Ministry of Interior is not obligated to justify why it approves or denies requests to allow protests. The penal code penalizes any gathering “of five or more individuals” that is held for the “purpose of committing crimes or inciting others to commit crimes.” Lawyers asserted authorities should not prevent demonstrations in advance based on assumptions crimes would be committed. Authorities prohibited the use of vehicles in any demonstration, protest, or gathering unless organizers obtained special written permission from the head of public security.
Organizers of an unauthorized gathering faced prison sentences of three to six months. The minimum sentence for participating in an illegal gathering is one month, and the maximum is two years’ imprisonment. Authorities gave longer sentences for cases where demonstrators used violence in an illegal gathering. The maximum fine is 200 dinars ($530). The law regulates election campaigning and prohibits political activities at worship centers, universities, schools, government buildings, and public institutions. The government did not allow individuals to use mosques, maatams (Shia religious community centers), or other religious sites for political gatherings.
The government did not prevent small opposition demonstrations that occurred in traditional Shia villages that often protested government policies or were intended to show solidarity with prisoners. Police reportedly broke up some of these protests with tear gas, however. While groups participating in these protests often posted photographs on social media of these events, participants were careful to hide their faces for fear of retribution.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the government limited this right. The government required all groups to register: civil society groups and labor unions with the Ministry of Labor and Social Development and political societies with the Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs. The government decided whether a group was social or political in nature, based on its proposed bylaws. The law prohibits any activity by an unlicensed society, as well as any political activity by a licensed civil society group. A number of unlicensed societies were active in the country (see section 3).
A civil society group applying for registration must submit its bylaws signed by all founding members, together with minutes of the founding committee’s meetings containing the names, professions, places of residence, and signatures of all founding members. The law grants the Ministry of Labor and Social Development the right to reject the registration of any civil society group if it finds the society’s services unnecessary, already provided by another society, contrary to state security, or aimed at reviving a previously dissolved society. Associations whose applications authorities rejected or ignored may appeal to the High Civil Court, which may annul the ministry’s decision or refuse the appeal.
NGOs and civil society activists asserted the ministry routinely exploited its oversight role to stymie the activities of NGOs and other civil society organizations. Local NGOs asserted officials actively sought to undermine some groups’ activities and imposed burdensome bureaucratic procedures on NGO board members and volunteers. The Ministries of Justice and Interior must vet funding from international sources, and authorities sometimes did not authorize it.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons
The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government did not always respect these rights.
The government generally cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern.
Foreign Travel: The law provides the government may reject for “reasonable cause” applications to obtain or renew passports, but the applicant has the right to appeal such decisions before the High Civil Court. Individuals, including citizens of other countries, reported authorities banned them from travel out of the country due to unpaid debt obligations or other fiduciary responsibilities with private individuals or with lending institutions, as well as for open court cases. The government maintained an online website during the year that allowed individuals to check their status before they traveled, although some persons reported the website was not a reliable source of information. Authorities relied on determinations of “national security” when adjudicating passport applications. During the year authorities prevented a number of activists from leaving the country without providing options for legal recourse.
The government reported that as of September it had lifted all but three of the 102 bans from international travel it issued in 2017. The government most often justified the application of “travel bans” as legitimate by noting they were to prevent the travel of those with pending criminal charges. Many of those previously banned from travel confirmed that their travel bans had been lifted. In previous instances individuals with travel bans believed the bans were imposed to prevent them from attending international human rights-related meetings.
Exile: There were no reports the government prohibited the return of individuals whom the government maintained were citizens. The government, however, prohibited the return of those whose citizenship it formally revoked, or those it no longer considered citizens (see below). There were cases of individuals who lived in self-imposed exile, often to avoid prison time for convictions imposed in their absence.
On November 27, soccer player Hakim al-Arabi was detained in Bangkok when travelling from Australia, where he had resident status as a refugee, to Thailand on vacation. Hakim fled Bahrain in 2014 after being convicted of burning and looting a police station, although human rights organizations claimed he was participating in an international soccer match at the time of the alleged crime. Although Interpol cancelled the “red notice” Bahrain requested for al-Arabi, as of December the decision over his possible extradition to Bahrain remained pending in the Thai legal system.
Citizenship: As a punitive measure, the government continued to revoke citizenship in both criminal and political cases, including for natural-born citizens. Authorities maintained the revocation of citizenship of some opposition political and religious figures. The government had not implemented a comprehensive legal review process concerning citizenship revocation, as recommended by the NIHR in 2015, to assure the government protected the rights of individuals and their family members. The government did not consider whether individuals may become stateless by these actions. At times it threatened to halt payments of pensions or remove families from government-assisted housing if a head-of-household loses his citizenship. Some family members, especially women and minor children, reported difficulties renewing their passports and residence cards and obtaining birth certificates for children. During the year the government issued limited-validity passports to a number of individuals whose citizenship it had revoked and deported them, most frequently to Iraq. According to press reports, the Iraqi government complained about the practice to Bahrain officials. There is no procedure for accused persons to mount a defense prior to citizenship revocation, although in 2014 the government instituted an additional requirement that the Ministry of Interior seek cabinet approval before revoking any person’s citizenship. The government did not report how many persons had their citizenship revoked during the year, although most international human rights NGOs placed the number at more than 250 as of August, and more than 700 since 2012.
On May 15, the High Criminal Court revoked the citizenship of 115 citizens in a mass trial of 138 persons on terrorism-related charges. It sentenced 53 of them to life in prison. Activists asserted the trial was unfair, given the accused were all tried en masse, including 52 in absentia. While revocation of citizenship is legal in the country when a person “harms state security,” allegations that confessions were extracted under torture raised questions about the proceedings.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees. The government at times provided protection against the expulsion or return of refugees to countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion; however, protection was mostly limited to those who had been able to obtain and maintain employment in the country. Such individuals generally had access to health care and education services while employed but were at risk of deportation if they became unemployed or if their country of origin revoked their passports. UNHCR reported that as of December, there were 394 refugees and asylum seekers registered with the agency.
Individuals generally derive citizenship from the father, but the king may confer or revoke it. Since the government considers only the father’s citizenship when determining citizenship, it does not generally grant children born to a non-Bahraini father citizenship, even if they were born in the country to a citizen mother (see section 6, Children). Likewise, the government does not provide a path to citizenship for foreign men married to Bahraini women, unlike the process by which foreign women married to Bahraini men may become citizens. Human rights organizations reported these laws resulted in stateless children, particularly when the foreign father was unable or unwilling to pursue citizenship from his country of origin for his children, or when the father himself was stateless, deceased, or unknown. It was unknown how many stateless persons resided in the country. Stateless persons had limited access to social services, education, and employment. There were reports authorities refused applications for birth certificates and passports for children whose Bahraini fathers were in prison because the fathers were not able to submit the applications in person (see section 6, Children).
In 2017 the BCHR issued a report documenting 13 cases of children who had not received citizenship because their fathers were dissidents. As of December the government had granted citizenship to all of the children named in the report, with the exception of Sarah Ali Salman, daughter of prominent Shia cleric and politician Ali Salman (see section 1.d.).
The government charged individuals whose citizenship it revoked with violating immigration law.