Bahrain is a hereditary monarchy. King Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa is the head of state and holds ultimate authority over most government decisions. The king appoints the prime minister, the head of government, who is not required to be a member of parliament. In November 2020 the king appointed his son, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, as prime minister, following the death of the incumbent. The prime minister proposes ministers, who are appointed and dismissed by the king via royal decree. The cabinet, or Council of Ministers, consists of 22 ministers, of whom seven are members of the ruling Al Khalifa family. The parliament consists of an upper house appointed by the king, the Shura (Consultative) Council, and an elected Council of Representatives, each with 40 seats. The country holds parliamentary elections every four years, most recently in 2018. Representatives from two formerly prominent opposition political societies, al-Wifaq and Wa’ad, could not participate in the elections due to their court-ordered dissolution 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.
The king is supreme commander of the armed forces, and the crown prince is deputy commander. The Ministry of Interior is responsible for internal security and oversees the civilian security force and specialized security units responsible for maintaining internal order. The Coast Guard is also under its jurisdiction. The Bahrain National Guard is responsible for internal threats. The chief of the National Intelligence Agency (previously the National Security Agency) is appointed by royal decree and reports to the prime minister. The agency has arrest authority, but reportedly did not conduct arrests during the year. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. There were credible reports that members of the security forces committed some abuses.
Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by government; harsh and life threatening prison conditions; arbitrary detention; political prisoners; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; serious restrictions on free expression and media, including censorship, and the existence of criminal libel laws; serious restrictions on internet freedom; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including overly restrictive laws on the organization, funding, or operation of nongovernmental organizations; restrictions on freedom of movement, including revocation of citizenship; serious and unreasonable restrictions on political participation; and significant restrictions on workers’ freedom of association.
The government prosecuted some low-level security force members responsible for human rights abuses, following investigations by government institutions. The government took steps to investigate allegations of corruption. Nongovernmental human rights organizations claimed investigations were slow and lacked transparency.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person
There were no reports that government security forces committed arbitrary or unlawful killings during the year.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
The constitution prohibits “harm[ing] an accused person physically or mentally.” Domestic and international human rights organizations, as well as detainees and former detainees, maintained that torture, abuse, and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by government security officials continued during the year.
Human rights groups alleged security officials beat detainees, placed detainees in stress positions, humiliated detainees in front of other prisoners, and insulted detainees’ religious beliefs. Detainees reported that security forces committed abuses during searches, arrests at private residences, and during transportation. Detainees reported intimidation, such as threats of violence, took place at the Criminal Investigation Directorate (CID) headquarters facility. Some detainees at the CID reported security officials used physical and psychological mistreatment to extract confessions and statements under duress or to inflict retribution and punishment.
Human rights groups reported authorities subjected children, sometimes younger than age 15, to various forms of mistreatment, including beating, slapping, kicking, and verbal abuse. On August 18, the criminal age of majority was raised from 15 to 18, although the law has been inconsistently applied.
Human rights organizations reported that four prison detainees, convicted on terrorism, illegal assembly, and rioting charges, began a hunger strike in November to protest prison mistreatment and denial of contact with their families. The four ranged in age from 17 to 20. Several of the juvenile detainees reported they were held in solitary confinement and were subject to abuse during their interrogations.
Human rights organizations and families of inmates also reported authorities denied medical treatment to injured or ill detainees and prisoners of conscience (see section 1.e., Political Prisoners and Detainees). In June, 73-year-old Hasan Mushaima, a prominent leader of a dissolved political society sentenced to life in prison on terrorism charges related to his role organizing protests in 2011, issued a recorded message from Jaw Prison to complain of his deteriorating health and prison authorities’ refusal to refer him to outside medical specialists. The government offered to release Mushaima on house arrest under the alternative sentencing law, but he declined, reportedly refusing to accept restrictions on his activities (see section 1.e., Political Prisoners and Detainees).
Impunity was not a significant problem in the security forces. The government stated that all prisons, detention facilities, and interrogation rooms at local police stations and the CID were equipped with closed-circuit television cameras that monitored facilities at all times. The Ministry of Interior police code of conduct requires officers to abide by 10 principles, including limited use of force and zero tolerance for torture and mistreatment. The Royal Academy of Police included the police code of conduct in its curriculum, required all recruits to take a course on human rights, and provided recruits with copies of the police code of conduct in English and Arabic. The ministry reported it took disciplinary action against officers, although it did not publish details of which principles the officers violated and what disciplinary steps were taken.
According to its eighth annual report released in December, the Interior Ministry’s Office of the Ombudsman received 209 complaints and 691 requests for assistance between May 2020 and April 30. Alleged victims or their families submitted multiple complaints regarding police mistreatment, along with human rights organizations and other international organizations. The complaints were levied against a variety of police directorates, Reform and Rehabilitation Centers (prisons), and other Ministry of Interior units. The Ombudsman rejected some cases as being outside of its jurisdiction and referred several more to other investigative bodies. The majority of cases investigated by the Ombudsman were considered resolved at the time of the report’s release, although several were still considered pending.
The Special Investigation Unit (SIU), an element of the Public Prosecutor’s Office (PPO) that reports to the king-appointed attorney general, is responsible for investigating security force misconduct, including complaints against police. The SIU investigated and referred cases of misconduct to the appropriate court, including civilian criminal courts, the Ministry of Interior’s Military Court, and administrative courts. The ministry generally did not release the names of officers convicted, demoted, reassigned, or fired for misconduct. The SIU did not provide detailed reports regarding the nature of police misconduct, abuse, or excessive use of force. According to compiled local media reports during the year, the SIU received 68 formal complaints, questioned 107 who were tied to those complaints, and prosecuted 16 members of the security forces in the criminal court on police misconduct charges. Three police officers faced trials in military courts, and at least 11 former police officers were referred to psychological evaluations.
The Ministry of Interior 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 negotiated memoranda of understanding with the government-linked National Institution for Human Rights (NIHR) to exchange expertise. The academy included a unit on human rights in international law in the curriculum for its master’s degree in Security Administration and Criminal Forensics program.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention. Local and international human rights groups reported that individuals were detained without being notified at the time of the arrest of the legal authority of the person conducting the arrest, the reasons for the arrest, and the charges against them. Human rights groups claimed Ministry of Interior agents conducted many arrests at private residences without presenting an arrest warrant or presenting an inaccurate or incomplete one. Government officials disputed these claims.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
The law stipulates law enforcement officers may arrest individuals without a warrant only if they are caught in the act of committing certain crimes and there is sufficient evidence to press charges. Additionally, the code of criminal procedure requires execution of an arrest warrant before a summons order to appear before the public prosecutor. Human rights activists reported that police sometimes made arrests without presenting a warrant, and that the PPO summoned political and human rights activists for questioning without a warrant or court order.
By law the arresting authority must interrogate arrested individuals within seven days following their arrest. A lower criminal court judge may extend detention of a suspect for no more than 30 days or release the suspect. The PPO may extend the suspect’s detention for 30 days, if the investigation is still pending, in coordination with the higher criminal court. Suspects may be held in pretrial detention for up to three months, after which the case is referred to the attorney general. Pretrial detention should not exceed six months, according to the law. The High Criminal Court must authorize any extensions beyond that period, and any renewals at 30-day intervals. Detained suspects have the right to legal counsel during questioning. A functioning system of bail provides maximum and minimum bail amounts based on the charges; however, judges often denied bail requests without explanation, even in nonviolent cases. The law allows the presiding judge to determine the bail amount within these parameters on a case-by-case basis.
Attorneys reported difficulty in gaining access to their clients in a timely manner through all stages of the legal process. They reported difficulty registering as a detainee’s legal representative because of arbitrary bureaucratic hurdles and lack of official government notaries; arbitrary questioning of credentials by police; lack of notification of clients’ location in custody; arbitrary requirements to seek court orders to meet clients; prohibitions on meeting clients in private; prohibitions on passing legal documents to clients; questioning of clients by the PPO on very short notice; lack of access to clients during police questioning; and lack of access to consult with clients in court. While the state provides counsel to indigent detainees, there were reports detainees never met with their state-appointed attorney before or during their trial.
According to reports by local and international human rights groups, authorities held some detainees for a week or more with limited access to outside resources. The government sometimes withheld information from detainees and their families regarding detainees’ whereabouts for as long as two weeks.
Arbitrary Arrest: Human rights groups reported that the Ministry of Interior sometimes arrested individuals for activities, such as calling for and attending protests and demonstrations, expressing their opinion in public or on social media (see sections 2.a. and 2.b.), and associating with persons of interest to authorities. Some detained individuals reported that arresting forces did not show them warrants.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: There were reports that authorities sometimes delayed or limited an individual’s access to an attorney. There were no reports of courts finding individuals to have been unlawfully detained and recommending compensation.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
Although the constitution provides for an independent judiciary, political opposition figures asserted the judiciary was vulnerable to political pressure, especially in high-profile cases. The judiciary is divided into civil law courts that deal with commercial, civil, and criminal cases, and family matters of non-Muslims, and family law courts that handle personal status cases for Muslims. Under the Unified Family Law, there are separate family courts for Sunni and Shia sharia-based proceedings. Some judges were foreign citizens, serving on limited-term contracts and subject to government approval for renewal and residence. The Supreme Judicial Council reported working with the Judicial Legal Studies Institute to prepare 10 new local judges per year, in an effort to increase their number. The Supreme Judicial Council is responsible for supervising the work of the courts, including judges, and the PPO.
The constitution presumes defendants are innocent until proven guilty. By law authorities should inform detainees of the charges against them upon arrest. Civil and criminal trial procedures provide for a public trial. Defendants have the right to consult an attorney of their choice within 48 hours (unless the government charges them pursuant to counterterrorism legislation); however, there were reports that defendants and their lawyers had difficulty getting police, public prosecutors, and courts to recognize or register legal counsel. The government provides counsel at public expense to indigent defendants. Plaintiffs are required to provide their own interpreters, except in labor dispute cases, when the Ministry of Justice, Islamic Affairs, and Endowments may provide assistance.
Defendants have the right to present witnesses and evidence on their behalf. While defendants have the right to question witnesses against them, judges may declare questions to be irrelevant and prohibit a line of questioning without providing reasoning. Prosecutors rarely present evidence orally in court but provide it in written and digital formats to judges in their chambers. Defendants cannot be compelled to testify or to confess guilt, and they have the right to appeal. The government may try defendants in their absence; during the year some defendants with terrorism-related charges were convicted and sentenced in absentia.
On January 31, the Supreme Criminal Court sentenced eight defendants to life imprisonment on terrorism charges for reportedly forming an Iran-backed terrorist cell, known as the “Qassem Soleimani Brigades.” According to a January 2020 Ministry of Interior statement, the cell planned to carry out terrorist activities in retaliation for the killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani. The court convicted 10 other members in absentia, sentencing them to prison terms ranging from five to 15 years. Local human rights defenders criticized the lack of transparency of court hearings and questioned how the group could have planned retaliatory terrorist activities months before Soleimani’s death in January 2020.
In August the government launched an e-courts platform to streamline judicial proceedings.
Family status law varied according to Shia or Sunni interpretations of Islamic law, especially for women (see section 6).
On September 9, the king issued a royal decree expanding the use of alternative sentencing. The decree allows the Ministry of Interior to recommend an alternative sentence before sentencing, removing the requirement that prisoners serve at least half of their prison term to be eligible for noncustodial sentences. On September 12, more than 30 prisoners had their punishments converted to noncustodial sentences under the new rules. Prisoner advocates asserted that the requirement that prisoners not pose a threat to public security was sometimes used to limit the eligibility of prisoners of conscience or political prisoners for alternative noncustodial sentences.
According to the minister of justice, Islamic affairs, and endowments, inmates released provisionally under the alternative sentencing law were allowed to work at government offices, both in service and administrative positions, to complete the remainder of their prison sentences. Officials in 21 government offices were providing jobs and vocational training to prisoners released on alternative sentences, as well as seven private sector companies and civil society institutions.
In February the king issued the Restorative Justice Law for Children and Protection from Mistreatment (see section 1.d., Prison and Detention Center Conditions and section 6, Children). The law, which came into effect August 18, mandates alternative noncustodial sentences for juvenile offenders. In addition to raising the criminal age of majority from 15 to 18, the law also established children’s courts, a child protection center, and a special children’s judicial committee to review criminal cases involving juveniles. The law also imposes harsher penalties on adults who incite or coerce children to commit crimes.
On August 7, the attorney general issued an order to define the PPO’s Family and Child Prosecution Unit’s procedures for investigating complaints involving children, to align it with the provisions of the new juvenile justice law and better protect children’s basic rights. The order instructs the PPO to examine victims’ social and psychological reports from the Child Protection Center before requesting their testimony. Children may request that an adult accompany them to any questioning. The order also requires the PPO to question children in their preferred language or dialect and in a manner that focuses on the child’s needs and protects the child’s privacy. The attorney general also directed the PPO to coordinate with the Ministry of Labor and Social Development’s Child Protection Center on complaints related to children and offer support and aftercare for victims.
On March 11, a court sentenced four defendants ages 16 and 17 to a six-month prison term for illegal assembly and planning to attack security forces. The judge provisionally released the four on alternative noncustodial sentences. They were accused of burning tires, blocking the streets, and possessing and using Molotov cocktails in Karrana village in February 2020.
On August 29, a special judicial committee issued its first ruling against a child younger than age 15. The child, who was accused of misuse of a mobile phone, was placed under judicial supervision for a year. On August 31, the Ministry of Labor and Social Development announced having received six law-enforcement orders from the special judicial committee. The ministry enrolled juveniles implicated in criminal activity in training and volunteer programs through the Child Protection Center, in lieu of prison sentences.
NGOs have expressed concerns regarding some terms of alternative noncustodial releases from prison. Volunteer work requirements as part of the alternative sentence could limit the released prisoner’s ability to work for an income and juveniles’ ability to attend school.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
There were reports of political prisoners or detainees.
According to NGOs the government held numerous political prisoners. The government released several under the alternative sentencing law during the year, although most remained in prison. The government did not permit access to such persons by independent humanitarian organizations. Charges against individuals identified by NGOs as political prisoners included terrorism, treason, espionage, and attempting to overthrow the monarchy.
On April 2, Shia religious figure Abdulnabi al-Sammak was released from prison under an alternative sentence. Al-Sammak was arrested in 2020 for reciting a Shia prayer during the first 10 days of Muharram and charged with publicly insulting symbols and defaming the Islamic faith.
On April 9, Mohammad Jawad Barweez (“Parweez”), age 75, was provisionally released on April 9 after completing most of a 15-year sentence for conspiracy and sedition related to his participation in the 2011 antigovernment protests. The same day, Shia cleric Sayed Kamel al-Hashemi was released under an alternative sentence after serving most of his three-year prison term for criticizing the government.
A former Bahrain Defense Force officer, Ali al-Ghanimi, was released on April 9 after serving 10 years of a 12-year sentence for protesting in uniform.
On April 26, Zakiya al-Barbouri was released after serving nearly three years of a five-year sentence on terrorism charges related to the transport of explosives. Activists alleged that the charges were politically motivated and based solely on her confession, which they allege was obtained under duress.
On May 10, Abdulhadi Mushaima’a, the father of a young protester killed by police in 2011, was released under an alternative sentence. Mushaima’a was arrested in 2019 after protesting his son’s death and calling for increased police accountability.
On August 5, Mohamed al-Aali, age 29, a prisoner with lung cancer, was released on an alternative sentence due to deteriorating health. He spent 20 days at a military hospital prior to his release. He had been sentenced to life in prison and had his citizenship revoked after being convicted on terrorism charges.
On September 13, Kumeel Juma, age 19, was released after serving two years in prison. Juma was convicted on 15 charges and sentenced in 2019 to consecutive sentences totaling 29 years in prison. Juma’s case was cited in a UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention report. International human rights NGOs considered his imprisonment a case of family reprisal due to his mother’s political activities and imprisonment. NGOs alleged that the terms of Juma’s alternative noncustodial release were exceedingly restrictive, including a travel ban and banning him from cultural and religious activities.
Human rights groups have called for the release of other imprisoned political opposition figures, including Sheikh Mohammed Habib al-Muqdad and Abdulwahab Husain, who were sentenced to life in prison in 2011, and Sheikh Ali Salman who received a life sentence in 2018. On May 9, relatives of Jaw prisoners marched in Karzakan, Sanabis, A’ali, Diraz, Bani Jamra, Sitra, and Hamala calling on authorities to release political prisoners. While some individuals were questioned by authorities, there were no reported arrests due to “illegal gatherings.”
Prominent human rights defender Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, a dual Danish-Bahraini citizen, remained imprisoned on a life sentence. A military court tried and convicted al-Khawaja in 2011 on charges related to terrorism and attempting to overthrow the government. His family formally requested an alternative sentence in September but, according to his relatives, the government has not formally responded to the request. Al-Khawaja was the former president and cofounder of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights.
Political prisoner Abduljalil al-Singace began refusing solid food in April to protest prison authorities confiscating his manuscript discussing Arabic dialects. He has been serving a life sentence since 2011, after being convicted of attempting to overthrow the monarchy.
On April 16, the family of Shia scholar Sheikh Abdullah Isa al-Mahroos reported he had started a hunger strike due to not receiving proper medical care and being prevented from seeing his son, who is also incarcerated in Jaw Prison. Al-Mahroos was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2011 along with 20 other opposition activists. His family said he should be eligible for an alternative sentence and had chronic medical problems.
On April 20, Jaw Prison authorities granted Sheikh Abduljalil al-Meqdad temporary release to attend his mother’s funeral. Sheikh al-Meqdad was arrested in March 2011 and charged with attempting to overthrow the government; he was sentenced to life in prison. At least five of his relatives, including his brother Sheikh Habib al-Meqdad, were serving prison sentences ranging from 10 to 15 years.
In June a prominent leader of a dissolved political society, Hasan Mushaima, reportedly refused to accept the conditions of an alternative sentence offered due to his deteriorating health. He has been serving a life sentence on terrorism charges since 2011.
Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies
Citizens may submit civil suits before a court seeking cessation of or damages for some types of human rights abuses. In many such situations, however, the law prevents citizens from filing civil suits against security agencies.
Although the constitution prohibits such actions, the government reportedly violated prohibitions against interference with privacy, family, home, or correspondence. Human rights organizations reported security forces sometimes entered homes without authorization and destroyed or confiscated personal property. The law requires the government to obtain a court order before monitoring telephone calls, email, and personal correspondence. Many citizens and human rights organizations believed police used informant networks, including ones that targeted or used children younger than age 18.
Reports also indicated the government used computer and mobile phone programs to surveil political activists and members of the opposition inside and outside the country. At least 13 activists were specifically targeted using Pegasus spyware by the Israeli company NSO Group, according to cybersecurity watchdog Citizen Lab, with at least one of the individuals residing in the United Kingdom when the hacking occurred.
According to local and international human rights groups, security officials sometimes threatened a detainee’s family members with reprisals for the detainee’s unwillingness to cooperate during interrogations and refusal to sign confession statements.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for Members of the Press and Other Media
The constitution provides for freedom of speech and for members of the press and other media, “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.” This constitutional provision, however, does not extend protection to social media. The government limited freedom of expression and press freedom through prosecutions of individuals under libel, slander, and national security laws that targeted both professional and citizen journalists.
Freedom of Expression: The law forbids any speech that infringes on public order or morals. Speech was 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.”
On January 21, authorities released Shia preacher Sheikh Abdul Mohsin Mulla Atiyya al-Jamri after a one-year prison sentence. Al-Jamri was convicted of delivering a sermon “disdaining a figure that is revered by a religious group,” according to the PPO.
On July 8, retired military officer and social media activist Mohamed al-Zayani was sentenced to a two-year noncustodial sentence after posting a video criticizing the PPO and the judiciary. Al-Zayani was an outspoken critic on sensitive topics, such as political prisoners and corruption.
International and local NGOs reported that police summoned three clerics in August during the days leading up to, and following, the Ashura religious rites. Authorities reportedly summoned and interrogated them for the content of their sermons, and specifically for “inciting sectarian hatred.” Police held two of them overnight; the third cleric remained in police custody as of year’s end.
Freedom of Expression for Members of the Press and Other 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.
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.
In June authorities detained a Sunni former member of parliament, Osama al-Tamimi, who had been critical on social media and in parliament of the ruling family and the treatment of prisoners. He was in the hospital for medical treatment at the time of his arrest. On June 27, he posted a message from prison, accusing authorities of penalizing his family by laying off his siblings from their government jobs, expelling his children from school, conducting multiple raids on his house, and vandalizing his property. Al-Tamimi also accused authorities of seizing his assets, freezing his local bank accounts, and injecting him with toxic substances. He remained in prison without charges at year’s end.
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 may be banned from publication by a ministerial order.” In November, after a movie studio refused to edit out certain scenes, the Ministry of Information banned the screening of a film due to its portrayal of a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or intersex (LGBTQI+) character and a same-sex relationship.
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.
National Security: National security laws provide 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 without prior government approval, publishing reports that adversely affect the value of the dinar (BHD), the local currency, saying anything offensive against a head of state that maintains diplomatic relations with the country, and publishing offensive remarks concerning accredited representatives of foreign countries.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
The constitution provides for the right of peaceful assembly, but several laws restrict the exercise of this right. The Ministry of Interior maintained a prohibition on public demonstrations for the sixth year, stating the ban was intended to maintain public order in view of sectarian attacks in the region. According to the government, no applications were submitted to hold a demonstration or protest during the year.
The law outlines the locations where public gatherings are prohibited, including areas close to hospitals, airports, commercial locations, security-related facilities, and downtown Manama. The General Directorate of the Police may prevent any public meeting it deems to threaten security or public order, or for any other “serious” reason. According to the law, the Ministry of Interior is not obligated to justify its approval or denial of permits for demonstrations.
The law prohibits mourners from turning funeral processions into political rallies and allows security officials to be present at any public gathering, including funerals.
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.” Authorities prohibit 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 other members who are responsible for its supervision and for preventing any illegal acts during the function. Organizers of unauthorized gatherings face prison sentences of three to six months. Sentences for participating in an illegal gathering range from one month to two years in prison. Judicial authorities pronounced longer sentences in cases where demonstrators used violence during illegal gatherings.
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.
On April 8, a criminal court sentenced five individuals to a 1,000 BHD ($2,652) fine each for violating a ministerial decree banning gatherings of more than five persons in public places to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
On October 17, the Ministry of Interior released 10 protesters arrested while protesting against normalization of relations with Israel on October 8. Social media reports suggested that as a condition of their release, the detainees were required to sign pledges to refrain from participating in any protests.
The government did not routinely prevent small, nonviolent opposition demonstrations that occurred in traditional Shia villages that protested government policies or were intended to show solidarity with prisoners. Police reportedly broke up at least one of these protests with tear gas during the year. Groups participating in these protests normally posted photographs on social media, but photographers and participants were careful to hide their faces to avoid retribution.
Freedom of Association
The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the government limited this right. The government required all civil society groups and labor unions to register with the Ministry of Labor and Social Development, and political society groups to register with the Ministry of Justice, Islamic Affairs, and Endowments. 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 group, as well as any political activity by a licensed civil society group. Some unlicensed society groups 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 group’s services unnecessary, already provided by another group, contrary to state security, or aimed at reviving a previously dissolved civil society group. Associations whose applications are rejected or ignored may appeal to the High Civil Court.
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 that 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 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/.
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 blocked them from leaving over unpaid debts or other fiduciary obligations to private individuals or lending institutions, as well as for open court cases. The government maintained an online website enabling individuals to check their status before travel, although some persons claimed the website’s information was unreliable. Authorities relied on determinations of “national security” when adjudicating passport applications. The government sometimes prevented civil society activists and others who publicly criticized the government from leaving the country, including for travel to Geneva and other western capitals that host UN agencies. Reports alleged that four minor children were denied issuance of passports in retaliation for their exiled family members’ activities.
Exile: There were no reports the government prohibited the return of individuals it considered citizens. The government, however, prohibited the return of those whose citizenship it had 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 adult and minor children, reported difficulties renewing or obtaining their own passports, residence cards, and birth certificates. 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 900 since 2012, with the government reinstating more than 55 percent of revoked citizenships as of 2019.
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 refugees, returning refugees, or asylum seekers, as well as other persons of concern.
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. Such protection was mostly limited to those who were 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 their country of origin revoked their passports. UNHCR reported that as of October, there were 255 refugees and 123 asylum-seekers registered with the agency.
Individuals generally derive citizenship from the father, but the king may also confer or revoke citizenship. The government considers only the father’s citizenship; it does not generally grant citizenship to children born to citizen mothers and foreign fathers, even if they were born within the country (see section 6, Children). Similarly, the government does not provide a path to citizenship for foreign men married to citizen women, while allowing foreign women married to citizen men to become citizens. Human rights organizations reported these laws resulted in stateless children, particularly when the foreign father was unable or unwilling to secure citizenship for the child from the father’s country of nationality, or when the father was stateless, deceased, or unknown. The number of stateless persons residing in the country was unknown. Stateless persons had limited access to social services, education, and employment.
NGOs confirmed multiple cases of authorities refusing applications for birth certificates and passports for children whose fathers were in prison because the fathers were not able to submit the applications in person or if their father’s citizenship had been revoked (see section 6, Children).
The government charged individuals whose citizenship it revoked with violating immigration law if they remained in the country.
Section 6. Discrimination and Societal Abuses
Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape is illegal, although the penal code allows men accused of rape to marry female survivors to avoid punishment. The law does not address spousal rape. Penalties for rape include life imprisonment or execution when the survivor is younger than age 16, the rapist is the survivor’s custodian or guardian, or the rape causes death.
The law states violence against women is a crime. Nevertheless, domestic violence against women was common, according to several women’s rights organizations. Although government leaders and some members of parliament participated in awareness-raising activities during the year, including debates on additional legislation, authorities devoted little attention to supporting public campaigns aimed at the problem. The government maintained a shelter for women and children who were survivors of domestic violence. The law provides that local police officials should be contacted in cases of domestic violence and that the public prosecutor may investigate if information is passed from police to them. Survivors of domestic violence, however, reported difficulty knowing whom to contact or how to proceed when filing a complaint.
The government did not provide statistics on documented instances or prosecutions physical or sexual abuse of women.
Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): FGM/C was rarely practiced. No specific law prohibits the practice, although legal experts previously indicated the act falls under criminal code provisions that prohibit “permanent disability to another person.”
Other Harmful Traditional Practices: By law “honor” killings are charged as a homicide and punishable with life in prison or a death sentence. The penal code provides a prison sentence for killing a spouse caught in an act of adultery, whether male or female. There were no cases of honor killings reported during the year.
Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment, including insulting or committing an indecent act towards a woman in public, with penalties of imprisonment and fines. Although the government sometimes enforced the law, sexual harassment remained a widespread problem for women, especially foreign female domestic workers.
Reproductive Rights: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.
There are no known legal barriers or penalties for accessing contraception. Health centers did not require women to obtain spousal consent for provision of most family planning services but did require such consent for women seeking sterilization procedures. Mothers giving birth out of wedlock in public or government-run hospitals often faced challenges in obtaining birth certificates for their children.
Contraceptives were available without prescription throughout the country regardless of nationality, gender, age, or marital status. The government provided access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence, although emergency contraception was not available.
Discrimination: Women have the right to initiate divorce proceedings in family courts, but unlike for men, both Shia and Sunni religious courts may refuse the request. In divorce cases the courts routinely granted custody of daughters younger than age nine and sons younger than age seven to Shia mothers, with Shia fathers typically gaining custody once girls and boys reached the ages of nine and seven, respectively. Sunni women were able to retain custody of daughters until age 17 and sons until age 15. Regardless of custody decisions, the father retains guardianship, or the right to make all legal decisions for the child, until age 21. A noncitizen woman automatically loses custody of her children if she divorces their citizen father “without just cause.” Any divorced woman who remarries loses custody of her children from a prior marriage.
The basis for family law is sharia, as interpreted by Sunni and Shia religious experts. In 2017 King Hamad ratified the Shia portion of the Unified Family Law codifying the rights of Shia citizens, in particular women, according to the civil code on issues such as marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance. Shia and Sunni family law is enforced by separate judicial bodies composed of religious authorities charged with interpreting sharia. The revised civil law provides access to family courts for all women, providing the standardized application of the law and further legal recourse, since decisions made by family court judges are subject to review by the Supreme Judicial Council. In instances of mixed Sunni-Shia marriages, families may choose which court hears the issue.
Lawyers expressed concern regarding the long waiting periods for final judgments in Shia courts, particularly in divorce cases.
Women may own and inherit property and represent themselves in all public and legal matters. In the absence of a direct male heir, Shia women may inherit all of their husband’s property, while Sunni women inherit only a portion, with the brothers or other male relatives of the deceased also receiving a share. The government respected wills directing the division of assets according to the deceased.
Systemic Racial or Ethnic Violence and Discrimination
The law grants citizenship to ethnic Arab applicants who have resided in the country for 15 years and non-Arab applicants who have resided in the country for 25 years. There were numerous reports that authorities did not apply the citizenship law uniformly. NGOs stated the government allowed foreign Sunni employees of the security services who had lived in the country fewer than 15 years to apply for citizenship, while there were reports authorities had not granted citizenship to Arab Shia residents who had resided in the country for more than 15 years and non-Arab foreign residents who had resided for more than 25 years.
Birth Registration: Individuals derive citizenship from their father or by decree from the king. Women do not transmit their nationality to their children, rendering stateless some children of citizen mothers and noncitizen fathers (see section 2.d.).
Authorities do not register births immediately. From birth to the age of three months, the mother’s primary health-care provider holds registration for the children. When a child reaches three months, authorities register the birth with the Ministry of Health’s Birth Registration Unit, which then issues the official birth certificate. Children not registered before reaching their first birthday must obtain a registration by court order. The government does not provide public services to a child without a birth certificate.
Education: Schooling is compulsory for children until age 15 and is provided free of charge to citizens and legal residents through grade 12. Authorities segregated government-run schools by gender, although girls and boys used the same curricula and textbooks. Islamic studies based on Sunni doctrine are mandatory for all Muslim public school students and are optional for non-Muslim students.
Child Abuse: The Family Courts have jurisdiction over child abuse matters.
There were reports police approached children outside schools and threatened or coerced them into becoming police informants.
In February the king issued the Restorative Justice Law for Children and Protection from Mistreatment, which came into effect August 18 (see sections 1.d., Prison and Detention Center Conditions and 1.e., Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies). The law raised the criminal age of majority from 15 to 18 and established children’s courts, a child protection center, and a special children’s judicial committee to review criminal cases involving juveniles. The law also mandates alternative noncustodial sentences for juvenile offenders.
Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: According to the law, the minimum age of marriage is 16 years for girls and 18 years for boys, but special circumstances allow marriages before reaching these ages with approval from a sharia court.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits exploitation of a child for various crimes, including in commercial sex and child pornography. The Restorative Justice Law for Children and Protection from Mistreatment, which came into effect August 18, imposes harsher penalties on adults who sexually exploit children or incite or coerce children to commit crimes, including increasing the mandatory minimum prison sentence for child pornography crimes to two years.
The age of consent is age 21 and there is no close-in-age exemption.
International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.
According to community members, there were between 36 and 40 Jewish citizens (six families) in the country. On August 22, a former ambassador announced the celebration of the first Shabbat minyan (traditional service with a quorum of 10 adult Jewish males) in the country since 1947. Diplomats, members of Jewish communities throughout the Gulf, and local and Emirati Muslims also attended.
In October the Association of Gulf Jewish Communities organized the first Jewish wedding in the country in 52 years. The event, done under the auspices of the Orthodox Union, the world’s largest kosher certification agency, was the first strictly kosher wedding in the kingdom’s history.
In response to Israeli Foreign Minister Lapid’s September 30 visit to inaugurate Israel’s new embassy and sign memoranda of understanding on expanding bilateral cooperation, opposition and pro-Iran factions posted antinormalization statements on social media and organized several small street protests. Protesters burned an Israeli flag, chanted “Death to Israel,” and carried posters of the Palestinian flag.
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
Persons with disabilities could not access education, health services, public buildings, and transportation on an equal basis with others. The law prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities. The constitution provides for social security, social insurance, and health care for persons with disabilities. The government administered a committee to oversee the provision of care for persons with disabilities that included representatives from all relevant ministries, NGOs, and the private sector. The committee was responsible for monitoring abuses against persons with disabilities. During the year the government did not prosecute any cases for offenses against persons with disabilities.
Building codes require accessible facilities in all new government and public buildings in the central municipality. The law does not mandate access to private, nonresidential buildings for persons with disabilities.
No information was available on the responsibilities of government agencies to protect the rights of persons with disabilities. According to anecdotal evidence, persons with disabilities routinely lacked access to education, accessible housing, and employment. The sole government school for children with hearing disabilities did not operate past the 10th grade. Some public schools had specialized education programs for children with learning disabilities, physical disabilities, speech disabilities, and intellectual and developmental disabilities, including Down syndrome. The law stipulates equal treatment for persons with disabilities with regard to employment, and abuses of the law are punishable with fines.
Eligible voters may vote either in their regular precincts or in a general polling station. Local precincts, which are mostly in schools, sometimes posed problems to voters with mobility disabilities due to lack of physical accessibility. General polling stations in public spaces such as malls allowed for assistive devices. There was no absentee ballot system.
The Ministry of Labor and Social Development continued to work with the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, in cooperation with the UN Development Program.
There were no known cases involving societal violence or discrimination against persons based on HIV or AIDS status, but medical experts acknowledged that discrimination existed. The government mandated screening of newly arrived migrant workers for infectious diseases, including HIV and AIDS. In prior years the government deported migrant workers found to be HIV-positive; the status of deportations during the year was unclear.
The law does not criminalize same-sex sexual conduct between consenting adults at least age 21, but it allots fines, imprisonment, deportation, or any of them for persons engaging in “immoral behavior,” and this provision has been used against individuals suspected of being LGBTQI+ or cross-dressing.
The law does not extend antidiscrimination protections to LGBTQI+ individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity occurred, including in employment and obtaining legal identity documents. In some cases, however, courts permitted transgender individuals to update identity documents if they had undergone sex reassignment surgery.