Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
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 prosecution of individuals under libel, slander, and national security laws that targeted citizen and professional journalists.
Freedom of Speech: The law forbids any speech that infringes on public order or morals. Speech is curtailed in both traditional media and social media. 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. The penal code allows penalties of no less than one year and no more than seven years of imprisonment, plus a fine, for anyone who “offends the monarch of the Kingdom of Bahrain, the flag, or the national emblem.” Defense attorney Abdulla al-Shamlawi, who defended prominent opposition figures, including members of the now banned opposition group al-Wifaq, was prosecuted for “defamation.” On September 14, an appeals court gave al-Shamlawi a six-month suspended sentence for “inciting sectarianism.” The appeals court decision overturned the June 30 verdict of the High Criminal Court, which sentenced al-Shamlawi to eight months in prison for “humiliating an Islamic sect” and “misusing a telecommunications device.”
On August 25, the Court of Cassation upheld a one-year prison sentence against Shia religious preacher Sheikh Abdul Mohsin Mulla Atiyya al-Jamri for a sermon “disdaining a figure that is revered by a religious group,” according to the Public Prosecutor’s Office.
On August 30, the Public Prosecutor’s Office arrested a Bahraini doctor for defaming religious figures during a sermon, stating the sermon promoted violence and sectarian sedition. Activists and rights groups claimed the sermon was misinterpreted. The Public Prosecutor’s Office released the individual on September 1 on bail, placed a travel ban on him, and referred his case to the court.
International and local NGOs reported police summoned approximately 10 individuals, including religious clerics, in the days leading up to and following the Ashura religious rites–the most significant days of the Shia religious calendar. Authorities reportedly summoned and interrogated these individuals for the content of their sermons, and specifically for “inciting sectarian hatred.” Police held some of them overnight; others were detained and released the same day; others remained in custody for several days or weeks.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: 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 and English from stations based outside the country, including by satellite. The Ministry of Information Affairs reviewed all books and publications prior to issuing printing licenses. The Ministry of Justice, Islamic Affairs, and Endowments also reviewed those books that discussed religion.
Several journalists submitted suggested reforms for the draft National Action Plan for Human Rights (see section 5).
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. In August 2019 the family of former member of parliament Osama al-Tamimi, who had been critical of the ruling family on social media, reported he was harassed by security forces and was reportedly under a travel ban.
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 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 of no more than two years or a fine. Application of the slander law was selective. The Ministry of Interior reported the government fined or imprisoned 93 individuals for “slander,” “libel,” or “divulging secrets” through April, compared with 172 cases in 2019. In addition, two persons were convicted of “insulting a government institution,” and 582 were convicted of “misusing a telecommunications device.”
National Security: National security-related law provides for substantial fines and prison sentences of at least six months for criticizing the king or inciting actions that undermine state security, as well as fines 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 Qatar-funded web-based outlets, which it began after cutting relations with Qatar in 2017, and other pan-Arab media outlets that were critical of Bahrain. Access to overseas human rights groups reporting on human rights and political prisoners in Bahrain and opposition-leaning news sites that were critical of the ruling family and the government were blocked within the country. 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.
In May 2019 the Ministry of Interior Cybersecurity Department announced it would use applicable laws to charge social media users who followed accounts that promote hatred and shared their posts. On August 26, the Cybersecurity Department warned against sharing content from Lebanon-based and Iran-based social media accounts that were linked with dissolved political societies al-Wifaq and al-Wafa.
Several reports alleged the government monitored political and human rights activists’ social media accounts and electronic communications.
Defense attorney Abdulla Hashim was charged with misusing social media and publishing “fake news” for eight tweets between 2017 and 2019 highlighting government corruption. At year’s end his case was awaiting an appeal verdict, and he was facing two years in prison for tweets critical of corruption, impunity, and establishing diplomatic ties with Israel.
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.
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. In January the Ministry of Interior summoned historian Jassim Hussain al-Abbas for a speech he gave at a conference in which he discussed the history of mosques in the country and alluded to Shia rulers before the first al-Khalifa emir.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The constitution provides for the rights of assembly and association, but laws and the government restricted these rights.
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 for the fifth year, stating the purpose was to maintain public order in view of sectarian attacks in the region. According to the government, there were no applications submitted to hold a demonstration or protest during the year.
The law outlines the locations where functions are prohibited, including in 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.
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.” Legal experts asserted authorities should not be able to prevent demonstrations in advance based on assumptions that 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.
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. Organizers of an unauthorized gathering face prison sentences of three to six months. The sentence for participating in an illegal gathering ranges from one month to two years in prison. Authorities gave longer sentences for cases where demonstrators used violence in an illegal gathering. During the year the Public Prosecutor’s Office stated there were 374 individuals arrested for violent gatherings, 346 of whom were convicted.
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 halls), or other religious sites for political gatherings.
The government did not prevent small, nonviolent 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 due to 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, Islamic Affairs, and Endowments. The government decides whether a group is 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.
Nongovernmental organizations (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.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government did not always respect these rights.
Foreign Travel: The law provides that 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 the government lifted 37 of 87 travel bans against citizens who were previously restricted from leaving the country.
Exile: There were no reports the government prohibited the return of individuals whom the government considered citizens. The government, however, prohibited the return of those whose citizenship it formally revoked, or those it no longer considered citizens.
Citizenship: The government may 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 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 the head of household lost his citizenship. Some family members, especially women and minor children, reported difficulties renewing their passports and residence cards and obtaining birth certificates for children. The government did not report how many persons had their citizenship revoked during the year; international human rights NGOs placed the total number at more than 700 since 2012. On August 12, the Court of Cassation reversed the revocation of citizenship of three defendants who were sentenced to life in prison for setting the Sitra Police Station alight in 2017. The Public Prosecutor’s Office asserted the three defendants were connected to a dissolved political society.
f. Protection of Refugees
The government generally cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.
In October the government and the UN high commissioner for refugees signed a memorandum of understanding on data sharing and information exchange with the stated goal of supporting refugees in the Middle East.
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. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees reported that as of December, there were 256 refugees and 56 asylum-seekers registered with the agency.
g. Stateless Persons
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).
The government charged individuals whose citizenship it revoked with violating immigration law.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
Government officials sometimes met with local human rights NGOs but generally were not responsive to the views of NGOs they believed were politicized and unfairly critical of the government. Beginning in August the Ministry of Foreign Affairs hosted a series of public workshops with government and civil society actors to inform the development of a National Action Plan for Human Rights and to improve transparency. Diplomats and international organization representatives also attended. Some civil society representatives expressed concern the government would not fully reflect the views of civil society in the development of the plan.
Domestic human rights groups operated with government restrictions, with some human rights activists imprisoned, exiled, or coerced into silence, according to reporting by international human rights organizations. Domestic human rights groups included the Bahrain Human Rights Society and Bahrain Human Rights Watch Society, the primary independent and licensed human rights organizations in the country; the BCHR, although dissolved by the government in 2004, continued to operate and maintain an online presence; and the unlicensed Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights. The unlicensed umbrella human rights organization, Bahrain Human Rights Observatory, also issued numerous reports and had strong ties to international human rights NGOs.
Domestic human rights groups faced significant difficulties operating freely and interacting with international human rights organizations. The government sometimes harassed and deprived local NGO leaders of due process. Local NGO leaders and activists also reported government harassment, including police surveillance, delayed processing of civil documents, and “inappropriate questioning” of their children during interviews for government scholarships. Activists reported forgoing travel, in particular to international human rights events, fearing a reimposition of international travel bans.
Individuals affiliated with international human rights and labor organizations, or who were critical of the government, reported authorities indefinitely delayed or refused visa applications, or at times refused entry to the country for individuals who possessed a valid visa or qualified for the country’s visa-free entry program.
Government Human Rights Bodies: Throughout the year the NIHR conducted numerous human rights workshops, seminars, and training sessions, as well as prison visits, and referred numerous complaints to the Public Prosecutor’s Office. It also operated a hotline for citizens and residents to file human rights-related complaints and offered an in-person walk-in option for filing complaints.
The SIU investigates and refers cases of security force misconduct, including complaints against the police, to the appropriate court, which includes civilian criminal courts, the Ministry of Interior’s Military Court, and administrative courts (see section 1.c.). The ministry generally did not release the names of officers convicted, demoted, reassigned, or fired for misconduct, although it reported the highest-ranking police officer prosecuted for any crime was a captain.
There is also an NIA Office of the Inspector General and a Ministry of Interior Ombudsman’s Office, created as a result of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry. While both offices were responsible for addressing allegations of mistreatment and violations by the security forces, there was little public information available regarding the activities of the NIA Office of the Inspector General.
The PDRC, chaired by the ombudsman, monitors prisons, detention centers, and other places where persons may be detained, such as hospital and psychiatric facilities. The PDRC is empowered to conduct inspections of facilities, interview inmates or detainees, and refer cases to the Ombudsman’s Office or SIU.
The ministry organized various human rights training programs for its employees, including a year-long human rights curriculum and diploma at the Royal Police Academy. The academy regularly negotiates memoranda of understanding with NIHR to exchange expertise. The academy continued to include a unit on human rights in international law as part of the curriculum for its master’s degree in Security Administration and Criminal Forensics. The NIHR had a memorandum with the NIA to organize workshops and training sessions for NIA officers relating to human rights and basic rights and to collaborate on future research.
The Ombudsman’s Office within the Ministry of Interior, the SIU within the Public Prosecutor’s Office, and the PDRC worked with each other throughout the year. The Ombudsman’s Office maintained a hotline for citizens to report police abuse via telephone, email, or in person.
Many human rights groups asserted that investigations into police abuse were slow and ineffective and questioned the independence and credibility of investigations by government-sponsored organizations.
Local and international observers and human rights organizations continued to express concern the government had not fully implemented Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry recommendations, including dropping charges against individuals engaged in nonviolent political expression, criminally charging security officers accused of abuse or torture, integrating Shia citizens into security forces, and creating an environment conducive to national reconciliation.