Bahrain - Politics
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Bahrain is ruled by a Sunni royal family. Sixty to seventy percent of Bahrain's 500,000 citizens are Shi'a. The other half-million residents are guest workers. The majority of Bahraini citizens are part of the Shi'a underclass, and their grievances, expressed both in legal political activity and in street skirmishes between youths and police, are at the center of all domestic politics here. Shi'ites say they are denied equal housing, health and education benefits and that most government institutions refuse to hire them. Sectarian violence continues to simmer and political life is becoming increasingly polarized.
While some Shi'a activists complain that King Hamad's reforms have not given them enough politically or economically, many Sunni hard-liners think the King has given away too much. With the exception of a few merchant families, Shi'a Bahrainis are poorer than Sunni Bahrainis. Most Bahraini Shi'a are Arabs, but about 10-15 percent of Bahrainis are ethnically Persian, and speak Persian at home. Many of these descend from families who came here to work in the British administration or, starting in the 1930s, in the oil industry. Persian-speakers (mostly Shi‚'a, a few Sunni) now tend to belong to the professional classes. Shi'ites claim they are treated like second-class citizens.
The Bahrain of 2010 was a far cry from the unrest of the 1990s. State security courts had been abolished, street protests were considerably fewer and less violent, and Wifaq, as a legal, parliamentary opposition, has proven its ability to channel most Shia political energy into non-violent protests.
Security forces fired shots in Manama on Friday 18 February 2011, where demonstrators were gathering for an anti-government rally, in defiance of a government ban on protests. Hospital officials said there were casualties.
Bahrain's military took control of the capital Thursday 17 February 2011, hours after riot police firing birdshot, rubber bullets and teargas stormed an anti-government protest camp, killing at least five people and wounding more than 230. Demonstrators say they were not given any warning before the security forces began firing on them, however the government says a notice was sounded.
Ministry of Interior spokesperson Brigadier Tariq Hassan Al Hassan announced 17 February 2011 that security forces had evacuated protesters from the area of Pearl Roundabout after trying all opportunities for a dialogue with them, to which some responded positively and left quietly. The sit-in started in the Pearl roundabout with limited demands, and developed to illegal demands, while from the beginning the gathering was unauthorised. Videos showed the possession of some protesters of guns and knifes and swords that they used against policemen who some of them sustained serious injuries. Special Security Forces called through loudspeakers upon protesters to leave, as the forces approached them in one side, while other sides were left for them to evacuate. During the evacuation two protesters died, while 92 sustained injuries and 82 of them were treated and discharged from hospital. He said a third death occurred when protesters clashed with security forces in the Pearl roundabout after the evacuation.
Thousands of Bahrainis held a third day of anti-government demonstrations on February 16, 2011 in the capital, Manama, where many of them joined a funeral for a second protester shot dead by police the day before. At least 2,000 mostly Shi'ite activists occupied Manama's Pearl Square Wednesday, after setting up a tent camp Tuesday and spending a first night in the open. The protest site mirrors the occupation of a Cairo square by Egyptian activists who ousted their president a week earlier. Many of the Pearl Square protesters say they will remain there until they achieve their goals. Some are calling for the ouster of the minority Sunni dynasty that rules the Gulf island state, while others demand the immediate resignation of longtime Bahraini Prime Minister Sheik Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa.
At a news conference Wednesday February 16, 2011, the head of Bahrain's main Shi'ite opposition bloc - the Islamic National Accord Society (Wefaq) - called for direct election of the prime minister, who currently is appointed by the king. The opposition leader, Sheikh Ali Salman, said his group's members of parliament - 18 of the 40 members of the Chamber of Deputies - will boycott the chamber until their demands are met.
Conditions in Bahrain continue to simmer. Small but violent bands of Shi'a underclass youth, frustrated with persistent discrimination and what they perceive as too gradual a pace of reform, clash with police nearly every week. In 2007, each weekend since 26 October saw small gangs in impoverished Shi'a areas set tires alight after dark and thrown rocks at police vehicles. On several occasions the young men also threw Molotov cocktails. There had been no injuries. Local media reported these incidents as juvenile delinquency and omitted any reference to their sectarian nature. Similar clashes in the Spring petered out in April when the Gulf's ferocious summer heat set in. Bahraini authorities and some Shi'a establishment contacts dismiss the rock-throwers as young men seeking weekend excitement. The incidents fell somewhere between juvenile delinquency and the venting of pent-up frustrations within the Shi'a community. The skirmishes, which remained confined to weekend evenings, appeared to lack significant support within the Shi'a community. Broader political participation and freer press have done much to channel Shi'a energy in positive directions over the previous eight years. On the other hand, the lack of economic and social opportunities continued to frustrate many Shi'a and was being exploited by radical populists.
The government of Bahrain observes a holiday each December 17, the anniversary of King Hamad's accession to the throne. However, for more than a decade Shi'a hardliners have called on Shi'a (who are about 70 percent of Bahrainis) to observe the same day as "Martyrs' Day," and to mark the deaths in the 1980's and 1990's of a number of Shi'a in street clashes with security forces. One man died during an evening of clashes between Shi'a youths and security forces on 17 Decembe 2007. While preliminary results of an autopsy supported the government's account that he died of natural causes, many Shi'a credited rumors that the man died at the hands of security forces. Websites and text messages used the term "martyr," and his death provided a rallying point for further protests.
The Sunni minority, which rules the country and controls all security forces, has generally acted with restraint, but it takes only one mistake to provoke a potentially disastrous escalation. Many feared just such a scenario when, on the evening of 09 April 2008, a policeman was killed in the Shia village of Kazarkhan by youths who threw rocks and Molotov cocktails, igniting his vehicle. The murder of a law enforcement officer crossed a red line and concern was high that security forces would react with a massive crack-down, further inflaming sectarian tensions. In fact, it appears that all sides - Shia and Sunni, regime and opposition - looked over the precipice and decided not to take the leap. All have walked their followers back and made a conscious decision to advocate restraint and tolerance. The police have arrested 14 people believed to be connected to the attack. All major political societies, including the largest Shia party, Al-Wifaq, issued strong statements condemning the killing and supporting the security forces. Other than the arrests, there has been no security crackdown. King Hamad recognizes the danger that violence and political stalemate represent for his democratic reforms and is playing a behind-the-scenes role to encourage moderation and compromise among political leaders.
The acquittal of ten Shia men in October 2009 on charges of killing a Pakistani policeman in April 2008 served to lower sectarian tensions. Local media reported that the presiding judge explained that the defendants' claims that they confessed under duress had influenced his verdict. Despite this, Bahrain's overall record on human rights remains positive on the whole. Allegations of private and government discrimination against Shia persist, but the democratic reforms of the past ten years have radically changed the political space.
The mainstream Shia opposition, Wifaq, remained committed to the political process and the parliamentary experiment had been largely successful. Shia rejectionist groups Haq and Wafa' inspire the youths who occasionally clash with police, but before 2011 had not seriously threatened Wifaq's hold on the Shia street.
The King has departed from his traditional detached style and intervened personally in several controversies arising from Bahrain's Shi'a-Sunni tensions. He has publicly, both personally and through his ministers, summoned communal leaders, newspaper editors and bloggers to warn them against crossing red lines against discussion of issues like royal family disputes and criticism of judges who have sentenced Shi'a rioters to prison terms. Within the Sunni minority there are several pockets of extremism, which the Bahraini authorities appear to be monitoring closely. In June 2009, police detained a Bahraini who was charged with being in contact with a "banned group", i.e. al Qaeda. U.S. and Bahraini security services worked together productively on this case.
New York-based Freedom House released 12 January 2010 its annual Freedom in the World report, in which Bahrain was demoted from "partly free" to "not free," after its political rights score fell from to 6 out of 10. Freedom House's brief justification asserted that early 2009 arrests of several Haq Movement leaders indicated that political rights had taken a turn for the worse in Bahrain in 2009. Tthree Haq leaders were arrested in January 2009 after failing to appear for questioning in the course of a police investigation related to the so-called national day plot; they were subsequently pardoned by the King. Also in January 2009, Haq ally and Front Line (Irish NGO) employee Abdulhadi Al Khawaja was questioned by prosecutors for several hours after calling for the overthrow of the Al-Khalifa ruling family during Ashura commemorations; charges against him were also dropped as part of the King's April 2009 pardon.
Media reaction was relatively muted, with only one Arabic-language newspaper carrying a brief article. English-language newspaper Gulf Daily News carried an article January 14 headlined "'Unrealistic' rights report slammed." Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Nazar Al-Baharna dismissed Freedom House's findings, arguing that Bahrain was regularly praised for its "progressive stance" on political rights. The article also quoted senior opposition MP, Jasim Husain (from the mainstream Shia Al-Wifaq opposition party), who said the report was "extreme" and that Bahrain should have remained in the "partly free" category.
Bahrain's Shia majority continued to suffer from unequal access to mid- and high-level government jobs, as well as lower socio-economic indicators than the Sunni minority. Gerrymandered districts notwithstanding, Bahrain's citizens enjoy the right to vote for their national and municipal legislators every four years. Political societies and NGOs are active to an extent almost unheard of in the Gulf, even in Kuwait, which Freedom House designated "partly free." Freedom House's definition of "not free" includes the absence of "basic political rights." This is simply not true of Bahrain. Radical Shia activists such as Al-Khawaja and fellow Haq ally Nabeel Rajab, head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, likely had undue influence over the Freedom House researchers, who may not have cast a very wide net during their in-country consultations.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report entitled "Torture Redux: the Revival of Physical Coercion during Interrogations in Bahrain," at an 08 February 2020 press conference in Manama. The report and accompanying press release asserted that "since the end of 2007, officials have repeatedly resorted to torture" during questioning of detainees. The torture allegations were largely based on interviews HRW conducted with 20 former detainees in June 2009.
Before the October 2010 elections, hundreds of Shi'ite opposition supporters were arrested, including 23 activists who were charged with terrorism and planning to overthrow the government. Authorities said the arrests were not connected to the election. According to the president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, Nabeel Rajab, the real motive behind the arrests was to prevent Shi'ites from gaining a majority in parliament. He says the action has made many Bahrainis loose faith in the election. "For sure the impact of the crackdown and the arrests is going to have an influence on the whole situation and I think the turnout for the election is going to be much less than what was expected."
The crackdown drew strong criticism from human-rights organizations that said Bahrain could be regressing to all-out authoritarianism. Bahrain was considered one of the more promising democratic experiments in the region. It seemed to be making progress on a variety of indicators and people were very impressed with the reform vision of the king. But just in a few months, there was an almost complete reversal and it was striking for analysts to see how sudden this shift in regime policy had occurred.
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