Report on Human Rights
Practices for 1999
Bahrain is a hereditary emirate with few democratic
institutions and no political parties. The Al-Khalifa extended family has
ruled Bahrain since the late 18th century and dominates all facets of its
society and government. The Constitution confirms the Amir as hereditary
ruler. The current Amir, Shaikh Hamad Bin Isa Al-Khalifa, succeeded his
father, Shaikh Isa Bin Salman Al-Khalifa, who died on March 6. Shaikh Hamad
governs the country with the assistance of his uncle as Prime Minister, his
son as Crown Prince, and an appointed cabinet of ministers. In 1975 the
Government suspended some provisions of the 1973 Constitution, including those
articles relating to the National Assembly, which was disbanded and never
reconstituted. Citizens belong to the Shi'a and Sunni sects of Islam, with the
Shi'a constituting over two-thirds of the indigenous population. However,
Sunnis predominate politically and economically because the ruling family is
Sunni and is supported by the armed forces, the security services, and
powerful Sunni and Shi'a merchant families. The political situation was calm
during the year; there were incidents of political unrest in 1998, but there
has not been significant unrest since 1996. There are few judicial checks on
the actions of the Amir and his Government, and the courts are subject to
The Ministry of Interior is responsible for public
security. It controls the public security force (police) and the extensive
security service, which are responsible for maintaining internal order. The
Bahrain Defense Force (BDF) is responsible for defending against external
threats. It did not play a role in internal security during the year. Security
forces committed serious human rights abuses.
Bahrain has a mixed economy with government domination of
many basic industries, including the important oil and aluminum sectors.
Possessing limited oil and gas reserves, the Government is working to
diversify its economic base, concentrating on light manufacturing and the
services sectors, particularly banking, financial services, and consulting.
The Government has used its modest oil revenues to build a highly advanced
transportation and telecommunications infrastructure. Economic growth is
highly dependent on global oil prices, but the economy remains stable. The
Government encouraged private national and international investment and moved
to privatize some of its state-run industries. Bahrain is a regional financial
and business center. Tourism, particularly via the causeway linking Bahrain to
Saudi Arabia, is also a significant source of income. Citizens enjoy a high
standard of living.
There continued to be serious problems in the Government's
human rights record; however, the situation improved measurably during the
year. The Government continued to deny citizens the right to change their
government; however, the political situation improved due to the sharp
decrease in political and civil unrest, and an effort by the new Amir to
develop relations with the Shi'a community. Unlike the previous year, there
were no extrajudicial killings by security forces; however security forces
continued to torture, beat, and otherwise abuse prisoners. Impunity remains a
problem; there were no known instances of any security forces personnel being
punished for human rights abuses committed either during the year or in any
previous year. The Government continued to use arbitrary arrest and detention,
incommunicado and prolonged detention, and involuntary exile; however, one of
the new Amir's first official acts was to pardon or release over 400 prisoners
and detainees, and exiles. In November and December the Amir pardoned a
combined total of approximately 400 prisoners and detainees, some of whom had
been detained for political reasons. The judiciary remains subject to
government pressure, and there are limits on the right to a fair public trial,
especially in the security court. The Government continued to infringe on
citizens' privacy rights. The Government imposed some restrictions on freedom
of speech and of the press and restricted freedom of assembly and association.
The Government also imposes some limits on freedom of religion and movement.
Violence against women and discrimination based on sex, religion, and
ethnicity remain problems. The Government restricts worker rights, and there
were instances of forced labor.
The new Amir took some steps to improve the treatment of
the Shi'a population. For example in December the Amir stated that all
citizens are "equal before the law" and allowed Shi'a to apply for
jobs in the BDF and the Ministry of the Interior for the first time in 4
years. In early July, the Amir pardoned Shi'a spiritual leader Abdul Amir Al-Jamri,
who had been in prison since 1996. The Amir also allowed greater access by
members of international human rights groups during the year, including visits
by Middle East Watch, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International.
RESPECT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS
Section 1--Respect for the Integrity of the Person,
Including Freedom From:
a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing
There were no reports of political or other extrajudicial
There were no investigations or prosecutions of any
security forces personnel for alleged extrajudicial killings committed in 1998
or earlier years.
There were no reports of politically motivated
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment
Torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or
punishment are prohibited by law; however there are credible reports that
prisoners often are beaten, both on the soles of their feet and about the face
and head, burned with cigarettes, forced to endure long periods without sleep,
and in some cases subjected to electrical shocks. The Government has
difficulty in rebutting allegations of torture and of other cruel, inhuman, or
degrading practices because it permits incommunicado detention and detention
without trial. There were no known instances of officials being punished for
human rights abuses committed either during the year or in any previous year.
Opposition and human rights groups allege that the security
forces sometimes threaten female detainees with rape and inflict other forms
of sexual abuse and harassment on them while they are in custody. These
allegations are difficult to confirm or deny.
Prisons generally meet minimum international standards.
Local defense attorneys report that their clients continued to receive
improved care and treatment. In addition the release of hundreds of detainees
from jail, perhaps as many as 788, (see Section 1.d.) and the reduced number
of arrests during the year, eased overcrowding. At the Government's
invitation, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) continued the
series of visits to prisons that it started in late 1996.
d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile
Arbitrary arrest and detention are problems. The
Constitution states that "no person shall be arrested, detained,
imprisoned, searched or compelled to reside in a specified place...except in
accordance with the provisions of the law and under the supervision of the
judicial authorities." However, in practice, in matters regarding arrest,
detention, or exile, the 1974 State Security Act takes precedence. Under the
State Security Act, persons may be detained for up to 3 years without trial
for engaging in activities or making statements regarded as a threat to the
broadly defined concepts of national harmony and security, and the Government
continued to arrest and detain citizens arbitrarily. The scope of the State
Security Act extends to any case involving arson, explosions, or attacks on
persons at their place of employment or because of the nature of their work.
Detainees have the right to appeal such detentions after a period of 3 months
and, if the appeal is denied, every 6 months thereafter from the date of the
Government security forces used the State Security Act
during the year to detain persons deemed to be engaging in antigovernment
activities, including persons who attempted to exercise their rights of free
speech, assembly, and association, or other rights. Activities that also may
lead to detention, questioning, warning, or arrest by the security forces
include: Membership in illegal organizations or those deemed subversive;
painting antigovernment slogans on walls; joining antigovernment
demonstrations (see Section 2.b.); possessing or circulating antigovernment
writings; preaching sermons considered by the Government to have an
antigovernment political tone; and harboring or associating with persons who
committed such acts. However, there was greater tolerance of certain
activities during the year, and the number of persons detained was less than
In addition to overseeing the security service and police,
the Ministry of Interior also controls the Office of the Public Prosecutor,
whose officers initially determine whether sufficient evidence exists to
continue to hold a prisoner in investigative detention. The Ministry is
responsible for all aspects of prison administration. In the early stages of
detention, prisoners and their attorneys have no recourse to any authority
outside the Ministry of Interior. The authorities rarely permit visits to
inmates who are incarcerated for security-related offenses and such prisoners
may be held incommunicado for months, or sometimes years. However, prisoners
detained for criminal offenses generally may receive visits from family
members, usually once a month.
At the beginning of the year, security forces were
estimated to have held over 1,300 persons in detention for security-related
offenses. During the year, some were arrested, released, and then arrested
again. At year's end, the total number of persons detained was substantially
reduced; however, as many as 1,000 persons still remained in detention. During
the year, the Government pardoned as many as 400 persons detained in
connection with antigovernment activities. One of the new Amir's first
official acts was to pardon or release over 400 detainees, prisoners, and
exiles. In November the Amir pardoned an additional 200 prisoners and
detainees, some of whom had been detained for political reasons. In December
the Amir pardoned another group of 195; the Government publicly stated in
December that the Amir pardoned 788 prisoners and detainees since his
accession in March.
Abdul Amir Al-Jamri, a prominent Shi'a cleric, longtime
opposition activist, and one of the original 14 signers of the 1994 petition
to the Amir calling for the restoration of the National Assembly, was
convicted and sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment on July 7 after having been
detained since January 1996, but he was pardoned by the Amir on July 8.
Several other Shi'a clerics who were associated with Al-Jamri and were
arrested at the same time, Abdul Wahab Hussein, Hassan Mushaimaa, Hassan
Sultan, and Haji Hassan Jarallah, remain in jail. One of the clerics arrested
with Al-Jamri died in detention in 1997; the Government stated that he died of
Abdul Jahil Abdula Khadim, a shop owner, remained in
detention at year's end. He was detained in 1998 after a young man who worked
in his store died from police mistreatment. Most of the young men detained in
July and October following antigovernment demonstrations reportedly were
While the authorities reserve the right to use exile and
the revocation of citizenship to punish individuals convicted or suspected of
antigovernment activity, there were no reports of exile orders issued during
the year. In the past, the Government has revoked the citizenship of persons
that it considered to be security threats. The Government considers such
persons to have forfeited their nationality under the Citizenship Act of 1963
because they accepted foreign citizenship or passports, or engaged in
antigovernment activities abroad. Bahraini emigre groups and their local
contacts have challenged this practice, arguing that the Government's
revocation of citizenship without due process violates the Constitution. The
Amir pardoned 32 exiles during the year. According to the emigre groups, as
many as 450 citizens continue to live in exile. This total includes both those
prohibited from returning to Bahrain and their family members who live abroad
with them voluntarily.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The Constitution provides for an independent judiciary;
however, the courts are subject to government pressure regarding sentencing
The civil and criminal legal system consists of a complex
mix of courts, based on diverse legal sources including Sunni and Shi'a
Shari'a (Islamic law), tribal law, and other civil codes and regulations. The
1974 State Security Act created a separate, closed security court system,
which has jurisdiction in cases of alleged antigovernment activity.
The Bahrain Defense Force maintains a separate court system
for military personnel accused of offenses under the Military Code of Justice.
Military courts do not review cases involving civilian, criminal, or security
Defense attorneys are appointed by the Ministry of Justice
and Islamic Affairs. Some attorneys and family members involved in politically
sensitive criminal cases complain that the Government interferes with court
proceedings to influence the outcome or to prevent judgments from being
carried out. There are also periodic allegations of corruption in the judicial
In past cases, the Amir, the Prime Minister, and other
senior government officials have lost civil cases brought against them by
private citizens; however, the court-ordered judgments are not always
implemented expeditiously. Members of the ruling Al-Khalifa family are well
represented in the judiciary and generally do not excuse themselves from cases
involving the interests of the Government.
A person arrested may be tried in an ordinary criminal
court or, if recommended by the prosecution, in the Security Court. Ordinary
civil or criminal trial procedures provide for an open trial, the right to
counsel (with legal aid available when necessary), and the right to appeal.
Criminal court proceedings generally do not appear to discriminate against
women, children, or minority groups. However, there is credible evidence that
persons accused of antigovernment crimes and tried in the criminal courts were
denied fair trials. Those accused are not permitted to speak with an attorney
until their appearance before the judge at the preliminary hearing. Trials in
the criminal courts for antigovernment activities are held in secret.
Security cases are tried in secret by judges on the Supreme
Court of Appeals, sitting as the Security Court. Family members usually are
not permitted in the court until the final verdict is rendered. Procedures in
the security courts do not provide for even the most basic safeguards. The
Security Court is exempt from adhering to the procedural protections of the
Penal Code. Defendants may be represented by counsel, but they seldom see
their attorneys before the actual day of arraignment. Convictions may be based
solely on confessions and police evidence or testimony that may be introduced
in secret. The defense cannot review the evidence against the defendant prior
to trial proceedings. Defense lawyers complain that they rarely are given
sufficient time to find witnesses. There is no right to judicial review of the
legality of arrests. There is no judicial appeal of a State Security Court
verdict, but the defendant may request clemency from the Amir. The Security
Court tried one individual, Abdul Amir Al-Jamri, during the year.
The number of political prisoners is difficult to determine
because the Government does not release data on security cases; however, the
total is believed to be less than 100. Such cases are not tried in open court,
and visits to prisoners convicted of security offenses are restricted
strictly. The Government denies that there are any political prisoners and
claims that all inmates incarcerated for committing security offenses were
convicted properly of subversive acts such as espionage, espousing or
committing violence, or belonging to terrorist organizations.
In accordance with tradition, the Government releases and
grants amnesty to some prisoners, including individuals imprisoned for
political activities, on major holidays. The Government reported that the Amir
pardoned over 788 prisoners and detainees since his accession in March,
although it was uncertain how many of these were political prisoners rather
than common criminals (see Section 1.d.). The prisoners were expected to be
released in small groups over the course of several months.
f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or
During the year, the Government infringed on citizens'
right to privacy, using illegal searches and arbitrary arrests as tactics to
control political unrest, although reports of such violations of citizens'
rights to privacy continued to decline. Under the State Security Law, the
Ministry of Interior is empowered to authorize entry into private premises
without specific judicial intervention. Telephone calls and personal
correspondence are subject to monitoring. Police informer networks are
extensive and sophisticated.
There were reports that security forces entered private
homes without warrants and took into custody residents who were suspected of
either participating in, or having information regarding, antigovernment
activities. While conducting these raids, security forces confiscated,
damaged, or destroyed personal property for which owners were not compensated
by the Government. Security forces also set up checkpoints at the entrances to
villages, requiring vehicle searches and proof of identity from anyone seeking
to enter or exit. Whenever possible the Government jams, either in whole or in
part, foreign broadcasts that carry antigovernment programming or commentary.
A government-controlled proxy prohibits user access to Internet sites
considered to be antigovernment or anti-Islamic (see Section 2.a.).
Section 2--Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
The Constitution provides for the right "to express
and propagate" opinions; however, citizens are not in practice free to
express their public opposition to the Government in speech or writing,
although there was some improvement during the year. Press criticism of ruling
family personalities and of government policy regarding certain sensitive
subjects--such as sectarian unrest and the dispute with Qatar over the Hawar
islands--is strictly prohibited. However, after the new Amir assumed power on
March 6, the Government allowed the press somewhat greater latitude. The Amir
stated in his December 16 National Day speech that the press and public have a
duty to question the Government about developments in the country. Some
sensitive issues, such as criticizing the services offered by the Ministries
of Interior and Defense and discussing the state budget, which were forbidden
in the past, are now being addressed in the local press. In July and August,
the local press published two comments criticizing the Ministry of Interior's
policy toward the "bidoon," (the indigenous stateless population of
mostly Persian-origin Shi'a upon whom the Government has not conferred
citizenship or the right to hold passports). In August columnists criticized
the Ministry of Finance for not informing the public of the effect of the
increase in oil prices on the State's budget and national income.
Local press coverage and commentary on international issues
is open, and discussion of local economic and commercial issues also is
relatively unrestricted. Many individuals express critical opinions openly on
domestic political and social issues in private settings but do not do so to
leading government officials or in public forums.
The Information Ministry exercises extensive control over
all local media. Newspapers are owned privately, but they routinely exercise
self-censorship of stories on sensitive topics. The Government does not
condone unfavorable coverage of its domestic policies by the international
media and occasionally has revoked the press credentials of offending
journalists. Because the Ministry controls foreign journalists' residence
permits, unfavorable coverage could lead to deportation. However, there were
no reports that the Government revoked press credentials during the year. The
Government generally afforded foreign journalists access to the country and
did not limit their contacts.
The State owns and operates all radio and television
stations. Radio and television broadcasts in Arabic and Farsi from neighboring
countries and Egypt can be received without interference. However,
international news services, including the Associated Press, United Press
International, and Agence France Presse, sometimes complain about press
restrictions. The Cable News Network is available on a 24-hour basis by
subscription, and the British Broadcasting Corporation World News Service is
carried on a local channel 24 hours a day free of charge. However, the
Government generally jams, wholly or partially, foreign broadcasts that carry
antigovernment programming or commentary (see Section 1.f.).
Most senior government officials, ruling family members,
and major hotels use satellite dishes to receive international broadcasts, as
do well-to-do private citizens. Access to satellite dishes and the importation
or installation of dishes no longer require prior government approval (see
Access to the Internet is provided through the National
Telephone Company (BATELCO). A government-controlled proxy prohibits user
access to sites considered to be antigovernment or anti-Islamic; e-mail access
to information is unimpeded, although it may be subject to monitoring (see
Although there are no formal regulations limiting academic
freedom, in practice academics try to avoid contentious political issues.
University hiring and admissions policies appear to favor Sunnis and others
who are assumed to support the Government rather than focusing on professional
experience and academic qualifications; however, there was some improvement in
hiring qualified individuals in a nondiscriminatory manner during the year.
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
Despite the Constitution's provision for the right of free
assembly, the Government prohibits all public political demonstrations and
meetings and controls religious gatherings that may take on political
overtones. Permits are required for most other public gatherings, and
permission is not granted routinely. Unauthorized public gatherings of more
than five persons are prohibited by law. The Government monitors gatherings
that might take on a political tone and frequently disperses such meetings.
The Constitution provides for the right of free
association; however, the Government restricts this right. The Government
prohibits political parties and organizations. Some professional societies and
social and sports clubs traditionally have served as forums for discreet
political discussion, but they are restricted by law from engaging in
political activity. Only the Bahraini Bar Association is exempt from the
regulations that require that the constitutions of all associations include a
commitment to refrain from political activity. The Bar Association
successfully had argued that a lawyer's professional duties may require
certain political actions, such as interpreting legislation or participating
in a politically sensitive trial. In January 1998, after the Bar Association
sponsored a lecture in which prodemocracy speakers publicly attacked the
Government, the Government told current board members that they would not be
allowed to stand for reelection. Although the decision has not been reversed,
the Bar Association continues to operate without hindrance. Other organized
discussions and meetings no longer are discouraged actively.
c. Freedom of Religion
The population is overwhelmingly Muslim, and the
Constitution states that Islam is the official religion; however, while the
Constitution also provides for freedom of religion, the Government does not
tolerate political dissent from religious groups or leaders, and subjects both
Sunni and Shi'a Muslims to governmental control and monitoring. Shi'a
constitute over two-thirds of the indigenous population. Most world religions
are represented in the country, and their followers generally practice their
faith privately without interference from the Government. Christians and other
non-Muslims including Jews, Hindus, and Baha'is practice their religion
freely, maintain their own places of worship, and display the symbols of their
religion. There are no registration requirements for religious organizations.
Bibles and other Christian publications are displayed and
sold openly in local bookstores that also sell Islamic and other religious
literature. Some small groups worship in their homes. Notable dignitaries from
virtually every religion and denomination visit the country and frequently
meet with the Government and civic leaders. Religious tracts of all branches
of Islam, cassettes of sermons delivered by Muslim preachers from other
countries, and publications of other religions are readily available.
However, proselytizing by non-Muslims is discouraged,
anti-Islamic writings are prohibited, and conversions from Islam to other
religions, while not illegal, are not tolerated well by society.
Both Sunni and Shi'a Muslims are subject to governmental
control and monitoring. During the year, there were no reports that the
Government closed any mosques or Ma'tams (Shi'a community centers) as it did
the previous year to prevent religious leaders from delivering political
The High Council for Islamic Affairs is charged with the
review and approval of all clerical appointments within both the Sunni and
Shi'a communities and maintains program oversight for all citizens studying
religion abroad. Public religious events, most notably the large annual
commemorative marches by Shi'a, are permitted but are monitored closely by the
Government. There are no restrictions on the number of citizens permitted to
make pilgrimages to Shi'a shrines and holy sites in Iran, Iraq, and Syria.
However, due to conditions in Iraq, very few citizens make pilgrimages there.
Stateless residents who do not possess Bahraini passports often have
difficulties arranging travel to religious sites abroad. The Government
monitors travel to Iran and scrutinizes carefully those who choose to pursue
religious study there.
The new Amir took some steps to improve the treatment of
the Shi'a population. For example in June the Amir stated that all citizens
are "equal before the law" and allowed Shi'a to apply for jobs in
the BDF and the Ministry of the Interior for the first time in 4 years. In
early July, the Amir pardoned Shi'a spiritual leader Abdul Amir Al-Jamri, who
had been in prison since 1996. Several other clerics associated with Al-Jamri
remain in jail (see Section 1.d.).
d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel,
Emigration, and Repatriation
The Government imposes some limits on these rights.
Citizens are free to move within the country and change their place of
residence or work. However, passports may be denied on political grounds.
Approximately 3 percent of the indigenous population, the "bidoon,"
or stateless persons, mostly Persian-origin Shi'a, do not have passports and
cannot obtain them readily, although they may be given travel documents as
Bahraini residents (see Section 5). The Government occasionally grants
citizenship to resident non-Bahrainis who are Sunni Muslims, mostly from the
Arabian Peninsula and Egypt.
Citizens living abroad who are suspected of political or
criminal offenses may face arrest and trial upon return to the country. Under
the 1963 Citizenship Law, the Government may reject applications to obtain or
renew passports for reasonable cause, but the applicant has the right to
appeal such decisions before the High Civil Court. The Government also has
issued temporary passports, valid for one trip a year, to individuals whose
travel it wishes to control or whose claim to Bahraini nationality is
questionable. A noncitizen resident, including a bidoon of Iranian origin,
also may obtain a Bahraini laissez-passer (travel documents), usually valid
for 2 years and renewable at Bahraini embassies overseas. The holder of a
laissez-passer also requires a visa to reenter the country.
Although the Government cooperates with the U.N. High
Commissioner for Refugees to the maximum extent possible, it has not
formulated a formal policy regarding refugees, asylees, or first asylum. The
Government usually does not accept refugees due to its small size and limited
resources. However, in practice refugees who arrive are not repatriated to
countries from which they have fled. Many Iranian emigres who fled Iran after
the Iranian revolution have been granted permission to remain in the country,
but they have not been granted citizenship.
Section 3--Respect for Political Rights: The Right of
Citizens to Change Their Government
Citizens do not have the right peacefully to change their
government or their political system, and the Government controls political
activity. Since the dissolution of the National Assembly in 1975, there have
been no formal democratic political institutions. The Prime Minister makes all
appointments to the Cabinet. All other government positions are filled by the
relevant ministries. About one-third of the cabinet ministers are Shi'a
Muslim, although they do not hold security-related offices. The Government
appeared to be more open to criticism during the year; however, it continues
to view most substantive reform as a threat to stability and has taken only
halting steps to expand political participation. The ordinary citizen may
attempt to influence government decisions through submission of personal
written petitions and informal contact with senior officials, including
appeals to the Amir, the Prime Minister, and other officials at their
regularly scheduled public audiences, called majlises.
In 1992 the Amir established by decree a Consultative
Council (Majlis Al-Shura). Its 40 members are divided between Sunni and Shi'a
(21 Shi'a, 19 Sunni) and are appointed by the Amir. They are selected to
represent major constituent groups, including representatives from the
business, labor, professional, and religious communities. There are no members
of the ruling Al-Khalifa family or religious extremists in the Majlis. In
addition to legislation submitted for its review by the Cabinet, the Majlis
may initiate debate independently on nonpolitical issues. The Majlis also may
summon cabinet ministers to answer questions, but its recommendations are not
binding on the Government. The Majlis held its seventh session from October
1998 to May, and began a new session on October 6.
During the year, the Majlis debated a number of contentious
social and economic issues, including unemployment, privatization, child care,
and education reform, and drafted proposals on these and other subjects for
government consideration. According to the Speaker of the Majlis, the
Government responded favorably to all but one of the Majlis's recommendations
by incorporating them into legislation or by taking other appropriate actions.
Women are underrepresented greatly in government and
politics; there are no women in the Majlis or at the ministerial levels of
Government. The majority of women who choose to work in government are in a
support capacity, and only a few have attained senior positions within their
respective ministries or agencies.
Section 4--Governmental Attitude Regarding International
and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights
There are no local human rights organizations. Because of
the restrictions on freedom of association and expression, any independent,
domestically based investigation or public criticism of the Government's human
rights policies faces major obstacles. Several political opposition movements
in exile report on the human rights situation. These include the
Damascus-based Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in Bahrain, the
London-based Bahrain Freedom Movement, the Beirut-based Islamic Front for the
Liberation of Bahrain, and the Copenhagen-based Bahrain Human Rights
Organization. These groups are composed of small numbers of emigres living in
self-imposed exile and reportedly receive funding from sources hostile to the
The Government maintains that it is not opposed to visits
by bona fide human rights organizations. During the year, the Government
allowed increased access by international human rights organizations. During
the year, Middle East Watch and Human Rights Watch representatives visited the
country, and in June the Government received a delegation from Amnesty
International, which issued a brief statement that noted that it was invited
by the Government but was not allowed to meet with all persons to whom it
requested access. In 1996 the Government invited the ICRC to undertake visits
to the country's prisons. The visits continued throughout the year and, while
the ICRC has maintained its usual standards of confidentiality regarding its
findings, credible reports indicate that conditions throughout the penal
system have improved.
Section 5--Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion,
Disability, Language, or Social Status
The Constitution provides for equality, equal opportunity,
and the right to medical care, welfare, education, property, capital, and work
for all citizens. However, in practice these rights are protected unevenly,
depending on the individual's social status, ethnicity, or sex.
Violence against women occurs, but incidents usually are
kept within the family. In general there is little public attention to, or
discussion of, the problem. During the year, a few articles appeared in the
local press discussing violence against women and the need for laws to defend
women who are abused. No government policies explicitly address violence
against women. Women's groups and health care professionals state that spouse
abuse is common, particularly in poorer communities. There are very few known
instances of women seeking legal redress for violence. Anecdotal evidence
suggests that the courts are not receptive to such cases.
It is not uncommon for foreign women working as domestic
workers to be beaten or sexually abused. Numerous cases have been reported to
local embassies and the police. However, most victims are too intimidated to
sue their employers. Courts reportedly have allowed victims who do appear to
sue for damages, return home, or both.
Shari'a governs the legal rights of women. Specific rights
vary according to Shi'a or Sunni interpretations of Islamic law, as determined
by the individual's faith, or by the court in which various contracts,
including marriage, have been made.
While both Shi'a and Sunni women have the right to initiate
a divorce, religious courts may refuse the request. Although local religious
courts may grant a divorce to Shi'a women in routine cases, occasionally Shi'a
women seeking divorce under unusual circumstances must travel abroad to seek a
higher ranking opinion than that available in the country. Women of either
branch may own and inherit property and may represent themselves in all public
and legal matters. In the absence of a direct male heir, Shi'a women may
inherit all property. In contrast, Sunni women--in the absence of a direct
male heir--inherit only a portion as governed by Shari'a; the balance is
divided among brothers, uncles, and male cousins of the deceased.
In divorce cases, the courts routinely grant Shi'a and
Sunni women custody of daughters under the age of 9 and sons under age 7,
although custody usually reverts to the father once the children reach those
ages. In all circumstances except mental incapacitation, the father,
regardless of custody, retains the right to make certain legal decisions for
his children, such as guardianship of any property belonging to the child,
until the child reaches legal age. A noncitizen woman automatically loses
custody of her children if she divorces their citizen father.
Women may obtain passports and leave the country without
the permission of the male head of the household. Women are free to work
outside the home, to drive cars without escorts, and to wear the clothing of
their choice. Women increasingly have taken jobs previously reserved for men.
The Labor Law does not discriminate against women; however, in practice, there
is discrimination in the workplace, including inequality of wages and denial
of opportunity for advancement. Women constitute over 20 percent of the work
force. The Government has encouraged the hiring of women, enacted special laws
to promote female entry into the work force, and is a leading employer of
women. The Labor Law does not recognize the concept of equal pay for equal
work, and women frequently are paid less than men. Generally, women work
outside the home during the years between secondary school or university and
marriage. Some women complain that admissions policies at the National
University are aimed at increasing the number of male students at the expense
of qualified female applicants, especially Shi'a women. Nevertheless, women
make up the majority of students at the country's universities.
There are women's organizations that seek to improve the
status of women under both civil and Islamic law. Some women have expressed
the view that, despite their participation in the work force, women's rights
are not advancing significantly and that much of the lack of progress is due
to the influence of Islamic religious traditionalists. However, other women
desire a return to more traditional values and support calls for a return to
traditional Islamic patterns of social behavior.
The Government often has stated its commitment to the
protection of children's rights and welfare within the social and religious
framework of this traditional society. It generally honors this commitment
through enforcement of its civil and criminal laws and extensive social
welfare network. Public education for children below the age of 15 is free.
While the Constitution provides for compulsory education at the primary
levels, authorities do not enforce attendance. Limited medical services for
infants and preadolescents are provided free of charge.
The social status of children is shaped by tradition and
religion to a greater extent than by civil law. Child abuse is rare, as is
public discussion of it; the preference of the authorities always has been to
leave such matters within the purview of the family or religious groups. The
authorities actively enforce the laws against prostitution, including child
prostitution, procuring, and pimping. Violators are dealt with harshly and can
be imprisoned, or, if a noncitizen, deported. In some cases, authorities
reportedly return children arrested for prostitution and other nonpolitical
crimes to their families rather than prosecute them, especially for first
offenses. There were no reports of child prostitution during the year. Some
legal experts have called on the Government to establish a separate juvenile
court. However, other citizens insist that the protection of children is a
religious, not a secular, function and oppose greater government involvement.
Independent and quasigovernmental organizations such as the Bahraini Society
for the Protection of Children and the Mother and Child Welfare Society play
an active part in protecting children by providing counseling, legal
assistance, advice, and, in some cases, shelter and financial support to
distressed children and families.
In 1998 there were numerous arrests and detentions of
juveniles during the year in connection with the political unrest. These
children generally were released without charges within several days of their
arrests. However, those juveniles charged with security offenses received the
same treatment as adult prisoners, that is, incommunicado detention and trial
before a State Security Court. There were very few reports of arrests and
detentions of juveniles during the year, and these persons were released.
People with Disabilities
The law protects the rights of the disabled and a variety
of governmental, quasigovernmental, and religious institutions are mandated to
support and protect disabled persons. The regional (Arabian Gulf) Center for
the Treatment of the Blind is headquartered in Bahrain, and a similar Center
for the Education of Deaf Children was established in 1994. Society tends to
view the disabled as special cases in need of protection rather than as fully
functioning members of society. Nonetheless, the Government is required by law
to provide vocational training for disabled persons who wish to work and
maintains a list of certified, trained disabled persons. The Labor Law of 1976
also requires that any employer of over 100 persons must engage at least 2
percent of its employees from the Government's list of disabled workers;
however, this commitment cannot be verified. The Ministry of Labor and Social
Affairs works actively to place the disabled in public sector jobs, such as in
the public telephone exchanges. The Government's housing regulations require
that access be provided to disabled persons. Greater emphasis has been given
in recent years to public building design that incorporates access for the
disabled; however, the law does not mandate access to buildings for persons
Although there are notable exceptions, the Sunni Muslim
minority enjoys a favored status. Sunnis receive preference for employment in
sensitive government positions and in the managerial ranks of the civil
service. While the defense and internal security forces are predominantly
Sunni, Shi'a citizens now are allowed to hold posts in these forces; however,
they do not hold significant positions. In the private sector, Shi'a citizens
tend to be employed in lower paid, less skilled jobs.
Educational, social, and municipal services in most Shi'a
neighborhoods, particularly in rural villages, are inferior to those found in
Sunni urban communities. In an effort to remedy societal discrimination, the
Government has built numerous subsidized housing complexes open to all
citizens on the basis of financial need. In order to ease both the housing
shortage and strains on the national budget, in 1997 the Government revised
its policy in order to permit lending institutions to finance mortgages on
A group of approximately 9,000 to 15,000 persons, mostly
Shi'a of Persian-origin, but including some Christians, are stateless.
Commonly known as bidoon, they enjoy less than full citizenship under the 1963
Citizenship Act. Many are second- or third-generation residents whose
ancestors emigrated from Iran. Although they no longer claim Iranian
citizenship, most have not been granted Bahraini citizenship. Without
citizenship these individuals officially are unable to buy land, start a
business, or obtain government loans, although in practice many do. The law
does not address the citizenship rights of persons who were not registered
with the authorities prior to 1959, which creates a legal problem for such
persons and their descendants and results in economic and other hardships. The
Government maintains that many of those who claim to be bidoon are actually
citizens of Iran or other Gulf states who have chosen voluntarily not to renew
their foreign passports. Bidoon and citizens who speak Farsi rather than
Arabic as their first language also face significant social and economic
obstacles, including difficulty finding employment.
The Amir stated in his December 16 national day speech that
he was committed to giving citizenship to "every qualified person."
There were reports that several bidoon families received citizenship after
waiting 20 years.
Section 6--Worker Rights
a. The Right of Association
The partially suspended 1973 Constitution recognizes the
right of workers to organize; however, independent trade unions do not exist.
The Constitution provides for "freedom to form associations and trade
unions on national bases and for lawful objectives and by peaceful
means," in accordance with the law, and states that "no person shall
be compelled to join or remain in any association or union."
In response to labor unrest in the mid-1950's, 1965, and
1974, the Government passed a series of labor regulations, which allow the
formation of elected workers' committees in larger companies. Worker
representation is based on a system of Joint Labor-Management Committees (JLC's)
established by ministerial decree. Three JLC's were created in 1998, bringing
the total to 19.
The JLC's are composed of equal numbers of appointed
management representatives and worker representatives elected from and by
company employees. Each committee is chaired alternately by the management and
worker representative. The selection of worker representatives appears to be
fair. Under the law, the Ministry of Interior may exclude worker candidates
with criminal records or those deemed a threat to national security, but the
Government has not taken such action in recent years.
The elected labor representatives of the JLC's select the
11 members of the General Committee of Bahrain workers (GCBW) established by
law in 1983, which oversees and coordinates the work of the JLC's. The
Committee also hears complaints from Bahraini and foreign workers and assists
them in bringing their complaints to the attention of the Ministry of Labor or
the courts. In 1998 elections were held for 3-year terms for representatives
to the GCBW. Workers from a variety of occupations were elected to the body,
including Sunni and Shi'a Muslims, foreign workers, and one woman. These
elections, which were by secret ballot, appeared to be free and fair.
Although the Government and company management are not
represented on the GCBW, the Ministry of Labor closely monitors the body's
activities. It approves the GCBW's rules and the distribution of the GCBW's
funds. The JLC-GCBW system represents nearly 70 percent of the island's
indigenous industrial workers, although both the Government and labor
representatives readily admit that nonindustrial workers and foreign workers
clearly are underrepresented in the system. The Ministry of Labor and Social
Affairs supports the formation of JLC's in all public and private sector
companies that employ more than 200 workers.
Although foreign workers constitute 67 percent of the work
force, they are underrepresented in the GCBW. Foreign workers participate in
the JLC elections, and five foreign workers currently serve on JLC's. However,
none sits on the board of the GCBW. It is a long-term goal of both the
Government and the GCBW to replace foreign workers with citizens throughout
all sectors of the economy and to create new jobs for citizens seeking
The Labor Law is silent on the right to strike, and there
were no strikes during the year. Actions perceived to be detrimental to the
"existing relationship" between employers and employees or to the
economic health of the State are forbidden by the 1974 Security Act. There
were no recent examples of major strikes, but walkouts and other job actions
have been known to occur in the past without governmental intervention and
with positive results for the workers.
Internationally affiliated trade unions do not exist. The
GCBW represents workers in the Arab Labor Organization, but does not belong to
any international trade union organizations.
b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively
As in the case of strikes, the Labor Law neither grants nor
denies workers the right to organize and bargain collectively outside the JLC
system. While the JLC's are empowered to discuss labor disputes, organize
workers' services, and discuss wages, working conditions, and productivity,
workers have no independent, recognized vehicle for representing their
interests on these or other labor-related issues. Minimum wage rates for
public sector employees are established by Council of Ministers' decrees.
Private businesses generally follow the Government's lead in establishing
their wage rates.
There are two export processing zones. Labor law and
practice are the same in these zones as in the rest of the country.
c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
Forced or compulsory labor is prohibited by law; however,
in practice the labor laws apply for the most part only to citizens, and
abuses occur, particularly in the cases of domestic workers and those working
illegally. The law also prohibits forced and bonded child labor, and the
Government enforces this prohibition effectively.
In some cases, foreign workers arrive in the country under
the sponsorship of an employer and then switch jobs, while continuing to pay a
fee to their original sponsor. The Government has announced its intention to
stop this illegal practice, which makes it difficult to monitor and control
the employment conditions of domestic and other workers; however, it took no
substantive action during the year.
Labor Law amendments passed in 1993 stiffened the penalties
for job switching to include jail sentences of up to 6 months for the sponsor
of every illegally sponsored worker. In such cases, the workers involved are
likely to be deported as illegal immigrants after the case is concluded.
During the summer and fall of 1998, the Government conducted an amnesty
program under which undocumented foreign workers were permitted either to
legalize their status or leave the country without penalty. As many as 38,000
workers opted to participate in the amnesty program; there was no amnesty in
The sponsorship system leads to other abuses as well. There
are numerous reports that employers withhold salaries from their foreign
workers for months, even years, at a time, and may refuse to grant them the
necessary permission to leave the country. The Government and the courts
generally work to rectify those abuses brought to their attention, but the
fear of deportation or employer retaliation prevents many foreign workers from
making complaints to the authorities.
Labor Laws do not apply to domestic servants. There are
credible reports that domestic servants, especially women, sometimes are
forced to work 12- or 16-hour days, given little time off, and are subjected
to verbal and physical abuse.
d. Status of Child Labor Practices and Minimum Age for
The minimum age for employment is 14 years of age.
Juveniles between the ages of 14 and 16 may not be employed in hazardous
conditions or at night and may not work more than 6 hours per day or on a
piecemeal basis. Child labor laws are enforced effectively by Ministry of
Labor inspectors in the industrial sector; child labor outside that sector is
monitored less well, but it is not believed to be significant outside family
operated businesses, and even in that sector it is not very widespread. Some
children work in the market areas as car-washers and porters. While the
Constitution calls for compulsory education at the primary levels, authorities
do not enforce attendance (see Section 5). The law prohibits forced and bonded
child labor, and the Government enforces this prohibition effectively (see
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
Minimum wage scales, set by government decree, exist for
public sector employees and generally afford a decent standard of living for a
worker and family. The minimum wage for the public sector is $278.25 (105
dinars) a month. Wages in the private sector are determined on a contract
basis. For foreign workers, employers consider benefits such as annual trips
home and housing and education bonuses as part of the salary.
The Labor Law, enforced by the Ministry of Labor and Social
Affairs, mandates acceptable conditions of work for all adult workers,
including adequate standards regarding hours of work (maximum 48 hours per
week) and occupational safety and health. The Ministry enforces the law with
periodic inspections and fines routinely imposed on violators. The press often
performs an ombudsman function on labor problems, reporting job disputes and
the results of labor cases brought before the courts. Once a complaint has
been lodged by a worker, the Ministry of Labor opens an investigation and
often takes remedial action. The Fourth High Court has jurisdiction over cases
involving alleged violations of the Labor Law.
Complaints brought before the Ministry of Labor and Social
Affairs that cannot be settled through arbitration must, by law, be referred
to the court within 15 days. In practice most employers prefer to settle such
disputes through arbitration, particularly since the court and labor law
generally are considered to favor the employee.
The Labor Law specifically favors citizens over foreign
workers and Arab foreigners over other foreign workers in hiring and firing.
Because employers include housing and other allowances in their salary scales,
foreign workers legally can be paid lower regular wages than their citizen
counterparts, although they sometimes receive the same or a greater total
compensation package because of home leave and holiday allowances. Western
foreign workers and citizen workers are paid comparable wages, with total
compensation packages often significantly greater for the former. Women are
entitled to 60 days of paid maternity leave and nursing periods during the
day. However, women generally are paid less than men.
In 1993 the Government strengthened the Labor Law by decree
of the Amir, announcing that significant fines and jail sentences would be
imposed upon private-sector employers who fail to pay legal wages. This law
applies equally to employers of citizens and foreign workers and is intended
to reduce abuses against foreign workers who sometimes have been denied legal
salaries (see Section 6.c.). The law provides equal protection to citizen and
foreign workers, but all foreign workers still require sponsorship by citizens
or locally based institutions and companies. According to representatives of
several embassies with large numbers of workers in the country, the Government
generally is responsive to embassy requests to investigate foreign guest
worker complaints about unpaid wages and mistreatment. However, foreign
workers, particularly those from developing countries, often are unwilling to
report abuses for fear of losing residence rights and having to return to
their native countries. Sponsors are able to cancel the residence permit of
any person under their sponsorship and thereby block them for 1 year from
obtaining entry or residence visas from another sponsor, although the sponsor
may be subject to sanctions for wrongful dismissal. Foreign women who work as
domestic workers often are beaten or sexually abused (see Section 5).
Under the Labor Law, workers have the right to remove
themselves from dangerous work situations without jeopardy to their continued
Trafficking in Persons
The law prohibits trafficking in persons, and there were no
reports that persons were trafficked in, to, or from the country.
Source: U.S. State Department.