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Bahrain - Politics - 2010 Election

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 departed from his traditional detached style and intervened personally in several controversies arising from Bahrain's Shi'a-Sunni tensions. He 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 14 January 2010 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.

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.

Almost all registered political societies participated in the October elections for the Council of Representatives and municipal councils. Sixty-seven percent of eligible voters participated in the two rounds of voting on October 23 and 30. The opposition Shia Islamist political society, Al-Wifaq, won all 18 races it contested for the Council of Representatives. Two progovernment, Sunni Islamist parties won a combined five seats (down from 15), and independents won 17 seats. Most opposition groups and other activists alleged that the government gerrymandered electoral districts in 2002 to provide for a progovernment, mostly Sunni majority in the Council of Representatives.

Political tensions flared in the weeks preceding the October 23 balloting, largely given the government's arrests of more than 200 Shia men it accused of inciting or involvement in, the street violence. Those arrested included some, but not all, of the leaders of two fringe, rejectionist groups, Haq and Wafa', which had called for a boycott of the elections. The government charged 23 of those arrested with involvement in a "terror network" pursuant to the 2006 counterterrorism law (see section 1.e.). The electoral process was also marred by the government's banning of the two main opposition parties' Web sites and newsletters. The government did not allow international observers to monitor the elections.

The government did not allow the formation of political parties; however, more than a dozen political societies, which operated somewhat like political parties, chose candidates for parliamentary and municipal elections, campaigned for political office, developed political platforms, held internal elections, and hosted political gatherings. Political societies were highly critical of provisions in the law requiring them to notify the government before contacting political groups abroad. The law prohibits civil society groups from engaging in political matters.

The newly elected Council of Representatives includes one woman, who previously won election as an independent in 2006. Only one of the major political societies fielded female candidates for the Council of Representatives. An independent female candidate won a seat on a municipal council. The newly appointed Shura Council contains 11 women. Two women served as cabinet ministers, five women sat as judges in the criminal courts, and one was a judge in the Constitutional Court.

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.

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