Friday, February 27, 2015

Bahrain's new parliament approves government programme

On 3rd Feb, Bahrain's new parliament, consisting almost entirely of supporters of the Sunni monarchy in the Shiite-majority kingdom, approved the government's political programme.

Prior to the recent elections, the influential Shiite opposition bloc Al-Wefaq had rejected extra powers granted to parliament in a 2012 constitutional amendment.

Under that amendment, the government must offer a new programme within 21 days if an initial programme is rejected by parliament. If rejected a second time, the government will be automatically replaced.

3rd February was the first time parliament was allowed to vote on the programme. And given that the main opposition boycotted November parliamentary elections and is not represented, the outcome was inevitable. 37 out of 40 MPs voted in favour of the programme and three abstained.

Following this move, Bahrain has opened a criminal investigation of the country's main opposition group, the Interior Ministry said on 17th Feb, accusing the al-Wefaq group of trying to undermine national security.

The Ministry of Interior said on its website that its General Directorate of Anti-corruption and Economic and Electronic Security had referred al-Wefaq to the public prosecutor after it documented violations that represent "criminal offences" under Bahrain’s laws.

It said these violations, published on al-Wefaq's Twitter account and on its website, included "incitement to hatred against the ruling system and circulating false news to undermine civil peace and national security."

During the Tuesday 10 February parliamentary session, a handful of MPs tried to force the Head of Parliament, Ahmed al-Mulla to discuss accusations in the press accusing the Parliament’s General Secretariat of corruption. Al-Mulla refused to allow the issue to be discussed, saying that the matter would be addressed in due course and that it was unfair for Parliament to be diverted away from issues which benefitted the public.

These MPs continued to shout their objections, with the aim of disrupting the session and eventually staged a walkout. These MPs included Mohammed al-Ahmed, Ahmed Qarratah, Abdulhalim Murad, Dhiyab al-Noaimi and Nabil al-Balooshi – a mix of Islamists and those with a reputation for taking oppositionist stances.

In response, Head of Parliament Al-Mulla said that Parliament could not be subject to a particular political agenda, while stressing the importance of investigating the allegations and noting the right of the media to freely criticize the authorities. The Parliament’s General Secretariat office has meanwhile denied the media allegations.

MPs propose removing obstacles to questioning ministers: Five MPs have submitted a proposal for making it simpler for Parliament to summon ministers over issues of concern. MP Ali al-Atish pointed out that monitoring Government performance was one of Parliament’s most significant roles. The 2012 Constitutional Amendments give a minimum of five MPs the right to summon a minister for questioning. However, Al-Atish noted that the parliamentary code of practice complicated this process and went against the spirit of these Amendments.

The chairman of the European-Bahraini Organization for Human Rights (EBOHR), Hussein Jawad was snatched from his home by masked police officers, he was taken to the Criminal Investigations Directorate — an affiliate of the Ministry of Interior notorious for the torture of detainees who are in the process of being charged with a crime.

Jameel Kadhim, a former parliament member and president of al-Wefaq's consultative council, was sentenced to six months in jail and fined 500 dinars by a court in Manama on charges of making false allegations that undermined national elections.

72 citizenships were suspended on 31st January. 20 of these were suspected members of ISIS but the remainder were human rights activists, journalists and bloggers. Initially all were lumped together under a charge of “failing to be loyal” but other charges were added later.

Monday, February 9, 2015

National Dialogue next?

Alice Samaan, Bahrain's Ambassador to the UK, has just sent the following message round by e-mail. We think it is encouraging. The question now is how the National Dialogue is to be restarted: 

On 3 February, 2015, the Kingdom of Bahrain’s Council of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to approve the Government Action Plan (GAP) for the next four years (2015-2018). The vote, in which 37 of Bahrain’s 40 MPs voted in favour with the remainder abstaining, followed 27 days of study by a specialised parliamentary committee, and negotiations between Parliament and the Government. This is the first time in Bahrain’s history that Parliament has had the right to consider (and potentially reject) the GAP and, under the Constitution, had the GAP been rejected in three parliamentary votes, His Majesty the King would have either dismissed the Cabinet or dissolved Parliament and called new elections.

Following initial indications that Parliament was minded to reject the first GAP blueprint, the committee worked with the Government to address issues of concern, resulting in a number of modifications and amendments. While recognising the financial realities of the current international economic situation, the amended GAP sets out detailed and comprehensive proposals for the coming four years, including provision of additional healthcare facilities, recalculation of certain benefit eligibility rules, additional disability benefit, and enhanced early retirement options  for women.

The success of the negotiations around the GAP, and the detailed consideration of the initial proposals in light of issues raised by the public both directly and through social media, demonstrates the important and growing role of the elected chamber of Parliament as the democratic representative of the people of Bahrain, and underlines its ability to effect genuine change and progress in line with popular will.

Meanwhile, from 25-29 January, a technical delegation from Amnesty International visited Bahrain at the invitation of the Government. During their stay, the delegation held a range of meetings with senior officials from both Government and non-governmental bodies, including the Minister of Justice, the National Institution for Human Rights, the Public Prosecutor, the Special Investigations Unit and the Ministry of Interior Ombudsman.

It is hoped that the Amnesty International delegation’s visit will enable the organisation to better appreciate the dramatic steps that have been taken by Bahrain in recent years to ensure the effective protection of human rights, to fully and properly investigate any allegations, and to uphold proper accountability through the judicial system in any cases where abuses have occurred. Bahrain will not shirk from its responsibilities in this regard, and the steps outlined in previous updates, including the establishment of bodies such as the Prisoners’ and Detainees’ Rights Commission (PDRC), not to mention those agencies previously mentioned, underline our determination to act properly and effectively in the protection of human rights.

To this end, in late January, the MOI Ombudsman, the PDRC and members of other Government departments and agencies participated in a training course jointly organised with the International Committee of the Red Cross to raise awareness of the ICRC’s work and methods, to better understand the applicable international standards and best practice, and to develop a joint framework for Bahrain’s cooperation with the ICRC.

Finally, on the international front, Foreign Minister  HE Shaikh Khalid Bin Ahmed Bin Mohamed Al Khalifa took part in the London meeting held on 22 January to coordinate the ongoing international response to ISIL, underlining the importance Bahrain attaches to effectively combating terrorism, to addressing sources of terrorist finance (including through the steps outlined in last year’s Manama Declaration), and to countering extremist ideologies. The Kingdom of Bahrain is determined to continue its close cooperation with the United Kingdom and other friends and allies to further advance our efforts in all these areas, and to keep both the region and the world safe from terrorist and extremist threats.

My Government hopes that Bahrain’s achievements, both in its ongoing political reform and development, and in effectively protecting human rights, will be properly recognised, particularly at a time when regional challenges are stronger than ever. As Iranian interference has become increasingly blatant, with official and semi-official sources releasing inaccurate and inflammatory statements designed to undermine Bahrain’s progress and to promote the interests of Iran and its proxies, my hope is that our friends will fully appreciate the progress we have made, and our determination to continue the process of reform and development to meet the needs and aspirations of Bahrain and all its people.

I look forward to keeping you updated of ongoing developments in the Kingdom of Bahrain, and would be happy to provide any further information that may be of assistance, or to address any questions you may have. 

Friday, January 9, 2015

Starting the New Year on the wrong foot

While the rest of the world was distracted by the holiday festivities, Sheikh Ali Salman, Shia opposition leader of al-Wefaq was arrested on 28th December 2014. The 49 year old has been the leader of al-Wefaq for a decade. He was remanded in custody and charged with “incitement to promote the change of the political system by force, threats and other illegal means”; “public incitement to loathing and contempt of a sect of people which will result in disrupting public disorder”; “publicly inciting others to disobey the law” and “publicly insulting the Interior Ministry.” This came following interrogations at the Ministry of Interior’s Criminal Investigations Directorate in connection to statements made in his speeches in 2012 and 20141, including at the most recent party General Assembly meeting on 26th December.

Attorney General Nayef Yousef Mahmoud said the head of the al-Wefaq political society would be detained pending further investigation by prosecutors. The Public Prosecution issued a statement saying that he confirmed he was in contact with a number of overseas governments and political organizations to discuss Bahrain’s internal affairs with the aim of achieving active interference in Bahrain and that he did not inform the authorities of these communications.

The UN's human rights chief Zeid Raad Al Hussein warned Sheikh Salman's arrest risked "intensifying the fraught political scene" in Bahrain.

This has triggered a series of riots and protests in the capital city of Manama and the surrounding areas calling for the release of Sheikh Ali Salman. On the 6th of January, there were clashes between security forces in the village of Bilad al Qadeem, south of Manama. This has led to several protestors being injured.

This has been a rather grim start to 2015 according to veteran human rights activist Nabeel Rajab and leading opposition activist, Maryam al-Khawaja, also warned of a very serious escalation of the continuing crisis in Bahrain.

A national dialogue process intended to find a solution to the crisis is currently at an impasse, with the opposition accusing the ruling al-Khalifa family of wanting to retain all powers, and angry Shia youth are increasingly turning to violence.

In a joint statement, opposition groups led by al-Wefaq said the authorities were "moving backwards to a police state instead of taking steps towards a political solution and an end to serious human rights violations against citizens".

National dialogue fell apart in 2013 after authorities arrested al-Wefaq's Assistant Secretary General. Nothing materialised from this meeting, and it quickly became apparent that the Bahrain government was using the meeting between the Crown Prince and al-Wefaq to appease the international community. Wefaq decided to boycott the November 2014 elections - a move with some local support, but which earned them international criticism.

Britain announced in early December 2014 that Bahrain will host its first naval base in the region since 1971. The base will cost Bahrain £15 million. This of course was denounced by al-Wefaq, other opposition groups as well as 26 British MPs  who stated that it will "send a message that the UK Government is not interested in justice, rule of law and reconciliation in Bahrain."

However al-Wefaq alone was singled out for its criticism by British Ambassador Iain Lindsey who stated, "I can only assume that Al-Wefaq are blissfully unaware that the US 5th Fleet, our considerably larger ally in the fight against ISIL, or Da'ash, is already based in Bahrain. Or that Al-Wefaq are opposed to the 60 nation coalition against Da'ash, or the 30 nation Combined Maritime Force based in Bahrain."

Monday, November 10, 2014

Bahrain: Civil society and Political Imagination By Jane Kinninmont and Omar Sirri

The following summary of the recent Chatham House (Royal Institute for International Affairs) paper on Bahrain was prepared by the NCF team. This summary attempts to reflect views expressed in that paper (but is not an exact précis of that paper) and does not represent an NCF position.

This paper looks at the continuing crisis in Bahrain which predates the 2011 demonstrations. This crisis is deepening sectarian tensions and damaging the Kingdom’s economy. This in turn is hampering investment, deterring expatriate talent and causing a brain drain whereby Shi’a Bahrainis and even Sunni Bahrainis are moving abroad to seek better economic opportunities.

Despite Crown Prince Sheikh Salman al-Khalifa’s attempts to encourage the opposition to participate in the 2014 elections by saying that Parliament would discuss five areas of possible reform, the opposition has decided against standing. However, the Crown Prince’s proposal did not guarantee reforms and some critical issues were not addressed. If institutions fail to create space for conflict resolution then tensions will play out in the streets.

The main reason behind the 2011 demonstrations was the failure of the limited reforms after 2001 to satisfy Bahrain’s diverse political constituencies. Since 2011 there have been various failed attempts at dialogue. These talks are tightly controlled by the authorities leading to opposition complaints that they are rigged. This has led to political and social polarisation in Bahrain and increased the risk of further radicalisation of the country’s opposition.

Another issue is Bahraini citizenship; the government has naturalised some 90,000 people since 1999.[1] [2]

Civil society operates under significant restrictions. An elected municipal council of Manama which was established in the 1920s and the Shi’a Ulema Council (a council of Shi’a clerics) were dissolved this year. Many civil society groups and opposition activists are accused of acting as agents for foreign powers, primarily Iran, despite claims from the opposition saying they are driven by national aims and not by a desire to create an Iranian style Islamic nation in Bahrain.

New laws on ‘insulting the king’ have discouraged the country’s moderate and independent voices from middle class families who feel they have lots to lose from participating in constructive debates for fear of insulting the monarchy.

Between January and August 2014, there were a series of back-channel discussions involving the Crown Prince, the royal court and several opposition groups including al-Wefaq in hopes of avoiding another boycott by al-Wefaq. In September 2014, the Crown Prince announced a new five-point framework for dialogue. These main points were:

  1. Electoral Districts - a commitment to redefining electoral districts to ensure fairer representation and measures to enhance electoral oversight
  2. Legislative Authority – revising the appointment process for the Shura Council and giving parliament the ability to question the prime minister
  3. Cabinet Formation - new rights of approval for the parliament on the appointment of the cabinet including the right to seek amendments of or reject the government’s annual plan
  4. Judicial Reform - a commitment to further judicial reform including the use of international expertise in order to entrench standards in line with international best practice and strengthen the constitutional independence of the judiciary
  5. Security – a commitment to the universal application of the rule of law and a new code of conduct for the security forces preserving the impartiality, probity and integrity of service

However, al-Wefaq rejected the proposed reforms as superficial and claimed that the five points fell short of the ‘seven principles’ framework that was agreed with the Crown Prince in 2011 which included (according to the Chatham House report): “a parliament with full authority, a government that represents the will of the people, ‘fair’ voting districts, discussion of naturalisation policies, combating corruption, protecting public assets, addressing sectarian tensions and implementing BICI recommendations on human rights”. There was no mention of political prisoners or sectarian discrimination. The failure to make any progress in the aftermath of the national dialogue has contributed to political and social polarisation in Bahrain and increased the risk of further radicalisation of the opposition forces.

With the opposition refusing to participate in the 2014 elections without any interim political deal, Bahrain’s problems will remain for the foreseeable future. However, work can still be done at the grassroots and civil society level to draw up proposals.

The regional media tend to contribute to the polarisation of public opinion in Bahrain. Iranian, Lebanese and Gulf television channels offer overwhelmingly partial views of the conflicts in the region, portraying their side as only acting in self-defence while the other side is the instigator of the conflict and the ensuing violence.

Saudi Arabia, Iran, US, UK all have overwhelming influence and power over Bahrain which is why Bahrain and the world are watching the tentative rapprochement between the US and Iran. For their part, most of the opposition groups have called for Western allies to reduce or remove their support for the government but at the same time some opposition groups and activist argue that calling for Western powers to apply pressure will only exacerbate the long standing problem of excessive foreign influence.

The sectarian violence in Syria and Iraq could serve as a spur for Bahrain to repair community relations and address political disputes in order to avoid suffering the same fate.

Some of the suggestions proposed in the report are:

  • Addressing perceptions of economic and social justice relating to jobs, corruption, discrimination and population pressures
  • Authorities to use Gulf aid to fund training, job and enterprise opportunities on a more meritocratic basis
  • A large proportion of Bahrain’s educated middle class and its youth could potentially lead grassroots dialogue efforts and play a constructive role in drawing up a political settlement. Two thirds of Bahrain’s population are under the age of 30; it was the young who were the driving force behind the 2011 uprisings
  • Dialogue should be revived and based on the Crown Prince’s seven principles and the BICI recommendations
  • The Bahrain Debate should be reinstated and broadcast on national television
  • Dialogue centres should be set up in each area to collect ideas that would be relayed to relevant government agencies and efforts made to bring various people to these centres to expose them to different perspectives
  • The ‘Youth Parliament’ should be reinstated
  • Instead of promoting new civil society organisations, the US and UK should discourage the authorities from repressing those that already exist

This is the link to the full report on the Chatham House website:

[1] A significant percentage are Sunnis from Pakistan. The Pak-Bahrain defence cooperation helped Bahrain set up its naval forces and 18 per cent of the Gulf state's air force comprises Pakistani personnel. It is estimated that almost 10,000 Pakistanis are serving in security services.
[2] This has made some in the Shi’a community in Bahrain uneasy, fearing they would get pushed out by the growing Sunni population thus becoming a minority.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Bahrain opposition group al-Wefaq's activities frozen . . . and then unfrozen

On 28th October, a Bahrain court issued an order suspending the activities of the country's main Shia opposition group, al-Wefaq. This came less than a month before elections are to be held.

This ruling against al-Wefaq would have meant that the group effectively could not operate for three months in Bahrain. It also prevented the group from organising rallies, press conferences, issuing statements or using its offices. Earlier this month, al-Wefaq had announced its intention to boycott the parliamentary elections scheduled for 22nd November. It complained that it felt that the Bahrain government had not made genuine efforts for reconciliation or reform since the 2011 demonstrations.

In a statement, al-Wefaq accused the Bahrain leadership of "ruling with an Iron fist" and "considers the measure irrational and irresponsible." It also said that "the regime is heading to a unilateral life and replacing the people with sham foundations and projects." Opposition leader Sheikh Ali Salman stated that they will be appealing the verdict, "we will appeal for sure and will continue on our peaceful struggle and path."

In July 2014, the Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs filed a lawsuit seeking to suspend all activities of Shia opposition groups for three months, This came after the leaders of al-Wefaq, Sheikh Ali Salman and Khalil al-Marzooq  were charged with holding an illegal meeting with Tom Malinowski, US Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour. Mr Malinowski was subsequently asked to leave the country.

The Ministry of Justice took the group to court on charges of "violation of the law on associations" after failing to comply with transparency rules when holding general meetings. The decision was issued after the opposition had decided to boycott the upcoming elections against the advice of much of the international community. The Administrative Court issued a decision to suspend al-Wefaq's activity and gave it "three months to correct irregularities observed against it."

In an interview with al-Monitor, Sheikh Ali Salman commented, "This decision is political and aimed at punishing opponents of the status quo and advocates of reform and democracy. There is little doubt that this is linked to our boycotting of the formal elections. The decision was taken out of revenge for our practice of the natural right that associations and citizens ought to exercise."

And then . . .

The government of Bahrain announced it would suspend the suspension. Thank God for some common sense at last.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

UPR Mid-term Session

The Kingdom of Bahrain publicly committed to presenting its mid-term report on the implementation of the 2012 Universal Periodic Review (UPR) recommendations during the 27th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva this month. In the wake of protests and human rights abuse in 2011, the Bahrain government accepted all of the recommendations from the 2011 Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) as well as 158 of the 172 recommendations from their 2012 UPR. 

The UN has also called on Bahrain to release Maryam al-Khawaja and has expressed concern over on-going human rights violations. On August 30th, upon arriving in Bahrain, Maryam al-Khawaja was taken into custody and charged with allegedly assaulting a lieutenant and a police officer after refusing to hand over her mobile phone during a search. Maryam has denied the charges and called them "vindictive and fabricated." If found guilty, she could face a maximum of two years imprisonment. She has come to Bahrain to visit her a father, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, a prominent human rights activist who is currently serving a life sentence for attempting to overthrow the Bahrain government. He staged a 110-day hunger strike in 2012 and is currently on a hunger strike again. 

Earlier this week, the Supreme Court of Appeal in Bahrain upheld a ten year sentence against photo-journalist Ahmad Humaidan. Humaidan was convicted of taking part in an attack on a police station in April 2012. According to various human rights organisations, he was simply covering the demonstrations and was not involved in the violence. Humaidan continues to maintain his innocence. He has been detained since December 2012. 

Despite repeated promises to implement reforms and to engage in national dialogue with opposition groups, the Bahrain government has repeatedly failed to do so and by continuing to detain the al-Khawajas, it is a clear indication that they are not serious about their promises. Furthermore, Bahrain's refusal to act will only damage their potential as a regional economic force and present and future investment from its global partners like India. India which holds vital stakes in the security and stability of the Gulf region, is an important partner for Bahrain with bilateral trade exceeding USD 1.3 billion in 2013-14. At present, there are over 350,000 Indian nationals who reside and work in Bahrain. 

The NCF will provide an in-depth review of the mid-term report once it is made available to the public. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Bahrain update

In a continuation of the sporadic violence began by the pro-democracy uprising in 2011, an explosion in the predominately Shiite town of East Eker in early July killed a police official on patrol. The police officer is the thirteenth officer reported to have been killed as a result of pro-democracy fuelled violence. The Sunni monarchy has generally responded with harsh punitive measures against protesting Shias, who constitute the majority of the population of Bahrain.

On 2 August, several vehicles were also set alight as unrest began in the capital, Manama. A group of masked youths were reported to be responsible for the attacks on cars and shops in the area, but the violence is also likely linked to the periodic violent protests associated with the 2011 uprising. Despite these two incidents, the scale of violence and unrest in Bahrain is still considered to be limited.

 Diplomacy and External Affairs

On the diplomatic scene, the US Assistant Secretary of State of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour was recently expelled from Bahrain in July after meeting with members of the Shia opposition group, al Wefaq. While Bahrains officials have insisted that relations with the US remain sound after the incident, the leader of al Wefaq, Sheik Ali Salman has been charged for illegally organising the meeting without the approval with government officials. The charge itself is that of contacting a representative of a foreign government in violation of the political associations law and related ministerial decisions.

Domestic Affairs

Internally, Bahrain has as recently as last week announced plans to further regulate the appointment process for public sector jobs, with a special focus on undersecretaries, assistant undersecretaries and directors. The nominations for appointment will now be managed by a committee chaired by the vice president of the Civil Service Bureau.