U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1996 - Bahrain

Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, January 30, 1997   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 its society and government. The Constitution confirms the Amir as hereditary ruler. The current Amir, Shaykh Isa Bin Sulman Al Khalifa, governs Bahrain with the assistance of a younger brother as Prime Minister, the Amir's son as Crown Prince, and an appointed cabinet of ministers. In 1975 the Government suspended some provisions of Bahrain's 1973 Constitution, including those articles relating to the National Assembly, which the Government disbanded in the same year. There are few judicial checks on the actions of the Amir and his Government. Bahrainis belong to the Shi'a and Sunni sects of Islam, with the Shi'a comprising over two-thirds of the indigenous population. The Sunnis predominate because the ruling family is Sunni and is supported by the armed forces, the security service, and powerful Sunni and Shi'a merchant families. Bahrain experienced considerable political unrest throughout the year, including bomb and arson attacks on public and private property. 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; however, during the year it was called upon to deal with civil unrest. The security forces committed numerous serious human rights abuses. Bahrain has a mixed economy, with government domination of many basic industries, including the important oil and aluminum industries. Possessing limited oil and natural gas reserves, Bahrain is intensifying efforts to diversify its economic base and has attracted companies doing business in banking, financial services, oilfield services, and light manufacturing. The Government has used its modest oil revenues to build an advanced transportation and telecommunications infrastructure. Bahrain has become a regional financial and business center. Tourism, particularly via the causeway linking Bahrain to Saudi Arabia, is also a significant source of income. The Government's human rights record worsened in 1996. The main human rights problems continue to include the denial of the right of citizens to change their government; political and other extrajudicial killings; torture; deteriorating prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and incommunicado detention; involuntary exile; limitations on or the denial of the right to a fair public trial, especially in the Security Court; infringements on citizens' right to privacy; and restrictions on freedom of speech, press, assembly, association, and worker rights. Domestic violence against women and discrimination based on religion, ethnicity, and sex remain problems.

Respect for Human Rights

Section 1 Respect for Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killings

During the year, in an effort to control civil disturbances, measures taken by the police and security forces resulted in the deaths of five persons. In at least one case, the police may have beaten to death a young man in custody. Most of the deaths occurred when police used force on crowds of antigovernment demonstrators. On January 5, during a peaceful demonstration in the Al-Qafool area of downtown Manama, security forces shot an unidentified 16-year-old male in the leg who was then fatally struck by a vehicle when he attempted to flee the scene. On May 3, Fadhel Abbas Marhoon of the village of Karzakkan was fatally shot by a patrolling BDF unit. On July 2, 17-year-old Ali Taher was shot and killed by security forces during a demonstration in Sitra. On July 23, 53-year-old Zahra Kadhem Ali reportedly suffered a fatal heart attack when security forces arrived at her home in Bani Jamrah to arrest her adolescent son. On August 15, 19-year-old Seyed Ali Amin from the village of Karbabad died in police custody, reportedly after being beaten and tortured during interrogation at the police station in the village of Khamis. To date the Government has not investigated or prosecuted any police or security force personnel for these incidents. Seven expatriate laborers died on March 14 when antigovernment protesters barricaded them in a restaurant in the village of Sitra and set the building on fire. One expatriate was also killed under similar circumstances in a separate arson attack in September.

b. Disappearances

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

Torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment are prohibited by law. There are credible reports, however, 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 are subjected to electric shock. At least one death probably occurred as a result of torture during detention (see Section 1.a.). 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 authorities being punished for human rights abuses committed either this 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 sexual abuses and harassment on them while they are in custody. These allegations are difficult either to confirm or deny. One death and one injury resulted from opposition bombing attacks on hotels and businesses in 1996. On June 30, a man was killed when an explosive device he was allegedly planting at a banking site detonated prematurely. On March 19, a female employee was severely injured when an explosive device detonated at a downtown hotel. Prison conditions are reportedly deteriorating. There are credible reports that, because of overcrowding, the Government is now experiencing difficulties in providing prisoners with adequate sanitation, sleeping areas, food, water, and health care. At the Government's invitation, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) sent a delegation to inspect the prisons in November. ICRC inspections are reportedly to continue into 1997.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The 1974 Constitution stated 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." In practice, however, 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 arbitrarily arrest and detain citizens. In March the scope of the State Security Act of 1974 was expanded to include 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 original detention. Government security forces used the State Security Act regularly during 1996 to detain persons believed by the Government to be engaging in antiregime activities, as well as those attempting to exercise their right of free speech, association, or other rights deemed to be in opposition to the Government. Activities that can also lead to detention, questioning, warning, or arrest by the security forces include: membership in illegal organizations or those deemed subversive; painting antiregime slogans on walls; joining antigovernment demonstrations; possessing or circulating antiregime writings; preaching sermons considered by the Government to have an antiregime political tone; and harboring or associating with persons committing such acts. 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, sometimes years. Prisoners detained for criminal offenses, however, generally may receive visits from family members, usually once a month. The number of women detained for questioning or placed under arrest for antigovernment offenses increased during 1996. However, credible sources within the legal profession state that the authorities do not as a rule hold women in detention for long periods. Security forces are estimated to have held over 3,000 people in detention in 1996, including some who were arrested, released, and then arrested again. At year's end, as many as 1,500 detainees still remained in detention. 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 arrested on January 21 and remains in detention. Al-Jamri is accused of committing a wide variety of security-related crimes, including treason. Several other Shi'a clerics associated with Al-Jamri, including Abdul Wahab Hussein, Hassan Mushaimaa, Hassan Sultan, Ali Bin Ahmed Al-Jedhafsi, and Haji Hassan Jarallah, were also arrested in January and remain in detention. While the authorities reserve their right to use exile and the revocation of citizenship to punish individuals suspected of, or convicted of, antiregime activity, there were no reports of exile orders issued in 1996. In the past, the Government has revoked the citizenship of nationals who are considered security threats. The Government considers these individuals to have forfeited their nationality under the Citizenship Act of 1963 because they accepted foreign citizenship or passports, or engaged in antiregime 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 Bahrain's 1973 constitution. According to the emigre groups, as many as 500 Bahrainis continue to live in exile. This figure includes both those prohibited from returning to Bahrain and their family members who voluntarily live abroad with them. During the year the Government released over 150 persons detained in connection with antigovernment activities.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The Constitution provides for an independent judiciary; however, the courts are subject to government pressure regarding sentencing and appeals. 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 was given wider jurisdiction in cases of antigovernment activity and was expanded from one to three courtrooms. 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 offenses. Defense attorneys are appointed by the Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs. Some attorneys and family members involved in politically sensitive criminal cases complained that the Government can and has interfered with court proceedings to influence the outcome or to prevent judgments from being carried out. There are periodic allegations of corruption in the judicial system. In past cases, the Amir, the Prime Minister, and other senior government officials have all lost civil cases brought against them by private citizens. The courts ordered these judgments to be carried out. Members of the ruling Al Khalifa family are well represented in the judiciary and do not generally excuse themselves from cases involving the interests of the regime. 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 trials provide procedural guarantees 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. The 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 antiregime activities were held in secret. Security cases are tried in secret by the Supreme Court of Appeal, sitting as the Security Court. Family members are usually 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 guarantees of the Penal Code. Defendants may be represented by counsel but 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. There is no discovery. Defense lawyers complain that they are rarely given sufficient time to develop 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. Over 117 Security Court convictions were publicly acknowledged by the Government by year's end, compared with fewer than 50 the previous year. The number of political prisoners is difficult to determine because the Government does not release data on security cases, such cases are not tried in open court, and visits to prisoners convicted of security offenses are severely restricted. The Government denies that there are any political prisoners, claiming that all inmates incarcerated for committing security offenses were properly convicted 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 pardoned over 100 prisoners in May during the Eid Al-Adha holiday.

f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

Under the law, the Ministry of Interior is empowered to authorize entry into private premises without specific judicial intervention. Domestic and international telephone calls and correspondence are subject to monitoring. Police informer networks are extensive and sophisticated. During the year, the Government infringed on citizens' right to privacy on a broad-scale, using illegal searches and arbitrary arrests as tactics to control political unrest. Security forces routinely raided villages at night, 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 frequently confiscated, damaged, or destroyed personal property for which owners were not compensated by the Government. Security forces also regularly set up checkpoints at the entrances to villages, requiring vehicle searches and proof of identity from anyone seeking to enter or exit. In many villages, although there were no official curfews, security forces routinely arrested villagers who ventured outside their residences after sundown. On one occasion, at least two villages were locked down completely by security forces, with residents unable to enter or leave for several days. For a period of months in the early part of the year, the Government disabled all public telephones to prevent outside communications. The Government generally jams either in whole or in part foreign broadcasts that carry antigovernment programming or commentary. In May the authorities jammed a satellite transmission of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) program Assignment because it contained a report on the political unrest that was critical of the Government. A government-controlled proxy prohibits user access to Internet sites considered to be antiregime or anti-Islamic (see Section 2.a.).

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

While the Constitution provides for the right "to express and propagate opinions," Bahrainis are not, in practice, free to express public opposition to the Government in speech or writing. 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 – are strictly prohibited. However, local press coverage and commentary on international issues is open, and discussion of local economic and commercial issues is also 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 sweeping control over all local media. Bahrain's newspapers are privately owned but routinely exercise self-censorship of stories on sensitive topics. In January the Government changed its policy of withholding information from the public regarding incidents of unrest and permitted more, albeit slanted, articles to be published in the local press. The Government does not condone unfavorable coverage of its domestic policies by the international media and has occasionally revoked the press credentials of offending journalists. Since the Ministry also sponsors foreign journalists' residence permits, this action can lead to deportation. There were no deportations of journalists during the year. Ahmed Al-Shamlan, a local columnist and attorney, was jailed in February for his antigovernment writings but was released in April when the charges against him were dropped. The Government generally afforded foreign journalists access to Bahrain and did not limit their contacts on the island, nor did they penalize reporters afterward for unfavorable stories. 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. International news services, however, including the Associated Press, United Press International, and Agence France Presse, frequently complain about press restrictions. The Cable News Network is available on a 24-hour basis by subscription and the BBC world news service is carried on a local channel 24 hours a day free-of-charge. However, the Government generally jams wholy or partially foreign broadcasts that carry antigovernment programming or commentary (see Section 1.f.). Many senior government officials, ruling family members, and major hotels use satellite dishes to receive international broadcasts, as do well-to-do private citizens. The Ministry of Information closely controls access to satellite dishes, and the importation or installation of dishes without prior government approval is illegal. The Internet system was introduced to Bahrain through the National Telephone Company (Batelco) in 1995. The number of users more than doubled during 1996. A government-controlled proxy prohibits user access to sites considered to be antiregime or anti-Islamic, but e-mail access to information is unimpeded, although it may be subject to monitoring. Although there are no formal regulations limiting academic freedom, as a practical matter academics try to avoid contentious political issues. In 1996 the Government introduced a new university admissions policy that appears to favor Sunnis and others who pose no question of loyalty and security, rather than focusing only on professional experience and academic qualifications. This policy was accompanied by a major shakeup in the university's administration that removed many Shi'a from senior-level positions.

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. 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. On a regular basis from January through July, the security forces used tear gas, rubber bullets, and, occasionally, live ammunition to disperse gatherings during which protesters called for the reestablishment of an elected parliament and the release of prisoners; objected to Al Khalifa rule; denounced police brutality; protested foreigners in the security forces and in the labor force; and demanded increased employment opportunities. After each of these incidents, suspected leaders and active participants were arrested. The Government prohibits political parties and organizations. Some professional societies and social/sports clubs have traditionally served as forums for discreet political discussion, but they are restricted by law from engaging in political activity. Only the Bahraini Bar Association has been granted an exemption to the regulation requiring all associations to state in their constitutions that they will refrain from political activity. The Bar Association successfully argued that a lawyer's professional duties may require certain political actions, such as interpreting legislation or participating in a politically sensitive trial. Other organized discussions and meetings are still actively discouraged. Permits are required for most public gatherings, and permission is not routinely granted.

c. Freedom of Religion

The population is overwhelmingly Muslim and Islam is the state religion. However, Christians and other non-Muslims, including Jews, Hindus, and Baha'is are free to practice their religion, maintain their own places of worship and may display the sumbols of their religion. Bibles and other Christian publications are displayed and sold openly in local bookshops, which also sell Islamic and other religious literature. Some small groups worship in their homes. Notables from virtually every religion and denomination visit Bahrain and frequently meet with government and civic leaders. Religious tracts of all Islamic sects, cassettes of sermons delivered by Muslim preachers from other countries, and publications of other religions are readily available. Proselytizing by non-Muslims is discouraged, anti-Islamic writings prohibited, and conversions from Islam to other religions, while not illegal, are not well tolerated by society. Both Sunni and Shi'a sects are subject to governmental control and monitoring. During the months of January and February, the Government closed mosques and ma'tams (Shi'a community centers) in certain locations to prevent religious leaders from delivering political speeches during their Friday prayers and sermons. There are also reports that security forces entered several religious facilities and removed communication equipment, such as computers, printers, and facsimile machines, that were alleged to be used to further political unrest. In March the Government established the High Council for Islamic Affairs which includes among its functions review and approval of all clerical appointments within both the Sunni and Shi'a communities and program oversight for all citizens studying religion abroad. The Council is still awaiting several key appointments and has yet to issue any directives. Public religious events, most notably the large annual commemorative marches by Shi'a, are permitted but are closely watched by the police. 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, owing to conditions in Iraq, very few citizens make pilgrimages there. The Government monitors travel to Iran and scrutinizes carefully those who choose to pursue religious study there. Travel to Iran for pilgrimages, business trips, tourism, and family visits, however, is not forbidden.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

Citizens are free to move within the country and change their place of residence or work. Passports, however, 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 readily obtain them, although they may be issued travel documents as Bahraini residents (see Section 5). About 150 Sunni bidoon, mostly from the Arabian Peninsula, were granted citizenship in 1995, and about 15 Egyptian citizens resident in Bahrain also received citizenship. Citizens living abroad who are suspected of political or criminal offenses may face arrest and trial upon return to Bahrain. 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 has also issued temporary passports, good for one trip within a year, to individuals whose travel it wishes to control or whose claim to Bahraini nationality is questionable. Noncitizen residents, including Bidoon of Iranian origin, may also obtain Bahraini laissez passers, usually valid for 2 years and renewable at Bahraini embassies overseas. Laissez passer holders also require visas to reenter Bahrain. Bahrain does not usually accept refugees due to its small size and limited resources.. In practice, however, refugees who arrive in Bahrain 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 Bahrain, but they have not been granted citizenship. Although the Government cooperates with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees to the maximun extent possible, it has not formulated a formal policy regarding refugees, asylees, or first asylum.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

Citizens do not have the right or ability peacefully to change their government or their political system, and political activity is strictly controlled by the Government. Since the dissolution of the National Assembly in 1975, there have been no formal democratic political institutions. The Government permits neither political parties nor opposition organizations. 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 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 establish by decree a Consultative Council (Majlis Al-Shura.) Its members are evenly divided between Sunni and Shi'a 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 September two Amiri decrees amended the Council's structure and mandate to allow for an expanded membership – from 30 to 40 – and increased powers, including debate on issues not submitted to it by the Cabinet. The Majlis may also summon cabinet ministers to answer questions, but its recommendations are not binding on the Government. The Majlis held its fourth session from October 1995 to June 1996 and began a new session on October 1. The chairman is a prominent Shi'a who formerly was Minister of Transport and Communications. In 1996 the Majlis debated a number of contentious social and economic issues, including unemployment, labor policy, and education, drafting proposals on these and other subjects for government consideration. According to the Speaker of the Majlis, the Government responded positively to the majority of the Majlis's recommendations by incorporating them into legislation or by taking other appropriate actions. There are no women in either the Consultative Council 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 managed to attain senior positions within their respective ministries or agencies.

Section 4 Government Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigations 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. A number of groups based abroad claim to report on Bahraini human rights violations. These include the Damascus-based Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in Bahrain, the London-based Bahrain Freedom Movement and the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain, and the Copenhagen-based Bahrain Human Rights Organization, formerly the Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners in Bahrain. These groups are composed of small numbers of emigres living in self-imposed exile and reportedly receive funding from sources hostile to the Government. They are viewed by many local observers as espousing a political, rather than a purely human rights, agenda. The Government maintains that it is not opposed to visits in good faith by bona fide human rights organizations and has engaged in dialog with the International Committee of the Red Cross and Amnesty International (AI). In practice, however, international human rights organizations have found it difficult to conduct activities in Bahrain. In October the Government invited the ICRC to undertake inspections of Bahrain's prisons, reportedly on the grounds that the ICRC's findings would not be made public. The inspections have been under way since November and are expected to continue into early 1997.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status

The Constitution states that "liberty, equality, security, tranquility, education, social solidarity, and equal opportunities for citizens shall be pillars of society assured by the State." It further states that every citizen shall have the right to medical care, welfare, education, property, capital, and work. In practice, however, these rights are unevenly protected, depending on the individual's social status, ethnicity, or sex.


Violence against women occurs, but incidents are usually kept within the family. In general there is little public attention to, or discussion of, violence against women. 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 Bahraini women seeking legal redress for violence. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the courts are not receptive to such cases. Cases are not uncommon of foreign women working as domestic servants who have been beaten or sexually abused. Numerous cases have been reported to local embassies and the police. Most victims, however, are too intimidated to sue their employers. Those who do so appear to be received sympathetically in the courts. Islamic law (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 outside of Bahrain to seek a higher ranking opinion than is available in Bahrain. Women of either sect 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; the balance is divided among brothers, uncles, and male cousins of the deceased. In the event of divorce, 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 respective 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 non-Bahraini woman automatically loses custody of her children if she divorces their Bahraini father. Women may obtain passports and leave the country without the permission of the male head of the household. Bahraini women are free to work outside the home, to drive cars without escorts, and to wear the clothing of their choice (a large percentage wear Western dress outside the home), and have increasingly taken jobs previously reserved for men. 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. Labor law does not recognize the concept of equal pay for equal work, and women are generally paid less than men. Generally, women work outside the home during the years between secondary school or university and marriage. Women make up the majority of students at Bahrain'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 significantly advancing and that much of the lack of progress is due to the influence of Islamic religious traditionalists. Other women, however, desire a return to more traditional religious values and support calls for a return to Islamic patterns of social behavior.


The Government has often stated its commitment to the protection of children's rights and welfare within the social and religious framework of this traditional society. It honors this commitment through enforcement of its civil and criminal laws and an extensive social welfare network. Public education for children below the age of 16 is free and compulsory. Limited medical services for infants and adolescents are provided free of charge. The social status of children is shaped by tradition and religion to a greater extent than by civil law. Public discussion of child abuse is rare, and the preference of the authorities has always 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 non-Bahraini, deported. In some cases, authorities reportedly will return children arrested for prostitution and other nonpolitical crimes to their families rather than prosecute them, especially for first offenses. Some legal experts have called on the Government to establish a separate juvenile court. Other Bahrainis, however, insist that the protection of children is a religious, not a secular, function and oppose greater government involvement. Independent and quasi-governmental 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, and advice, and, in some cases, shelter and financial support to distressed children and families. Detentions and arrests of juveniles, some as young as 7 years old, increased in 1996 in connection with the political unrest. These children were generally released without charges within several days of their arrests. However, those juveniles charged with security offenses received the same treatment as adult prisoners, i.e., incommunicado detention and trial before a state security court.

People with Disabilities

The law protects the rights of people with disabilities, and a variety of governmental, quasi-governmental, 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. Bahraini society tends to view people with disabilities 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 wishing to work and maintains a list of certified, trained disabled persons. The Labor Law of 1976 also requires that any employer of over 100 people must engage at least 2 percent of its employees from the Government's list of disabled workers. The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs works actively to place people with disabilities in public sector jobs, such as in the public telephone exchanges. The Government's housing regulations require that access be provided to disabled persons. Most large public buildings are equipped with ramps and other aids that make them accessible to disabled persons.

Religious Minorities

Although there are notable exceptions, the Sunni Muslim minority enjoys a favored status in Bahrain. Sunnis generally receive preference for employment in sensitive government positions and in the managerial ranks of the civil service. Shi'a citizens are not allowed to hold significant posts in the Bahrain defense and internal security forces. During 1996 employment opportunities for Shi'a citizens in the government sector became more restricted. In the private sector, Shi'a 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 social discrimination, improve living conditions for the Shi'a, and encourage integration, the Government has built numerous subsidized housing complexes open to all citizens on the basis of financial need.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

A group of approximately 9,000 to 15,000 persons, mostly of Persian-origin and Shi'a, but including some Christians, are stateless. They are commonly known as bidoon and enjoy less than full citizenship under the Citizenship Act of 1963. Many of the bidoon are second- or third-generation residents whose ancestors emigrated from Iran. Although they no longer claim Iranian citizenship, they have not been granted Bahraini nationality. Without citizenship these individuals are officially 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, creating a legal problem for such persons and their descendants and resulting 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 voluntarily chosen not to renew their foreign passports. Bidoon and Bahrainis who speak Farsi, rather than Arabic, as their first language also face significant social and economic obstacles, including difficulty finding employment.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

The partially suspended 1973 Constitution recognizes the right of workers to organize, but internationally affiliated trade unions do not exist. The Constitution states that "freedom to form associations and trade unions on national bases and for lawful objectives and by peaceful means shall be guaranteed in accordance with the conditions and in the manner prescribed by the law. 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, among other things, allow the formation of elected workers' committees in larger companies. Worker representation today is based on a system of Joint Labor-Management Committees (JLC's) established by ministerial decree. Between 1981 and 1984, 12 JLC's were established in the major state-owned industries. Four new JLC's were established in 1994 in the private sector, including one in a major hotel. In 1995 elections were held for 2-year terms for representatives to the General Committee of Bahrain Workers (GCBW), which oversees the activities of the JLC's. Workers from all types of occupations were elected to the body in 1995, including Sunni and Shi'a Muslims, expatriates, and, for the first time, a woman. These elections, which were by secret ballot and appeared to be free, were carried out during the worst of the demonstrations. The Government is considering the further expansion of the JLC system into the tourism and banking sectors. 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. The elected labor representatives of the JLC's select the 11 members of the GCBW, established in 1983 by law, 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. 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 GCBW funds. The JLC-GCBW system represents nearly 70 percent of the island's indigenous industrial workers, although both government and labor representatives readily admit that nonindustrial workers and expatriates are clearly underrepresented in the system. The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs has publicly urged the formation of JLC's in all public and private sector companies employing more than 200 workers. Although expatriate workers comprise 67 percent of the work force, expatriates are underrepresented in the GCBW. Expatriate workers can and do participate in JLC elections, and five expatriates currently serve on JLC's. None, however, currently sits on the board of the GCBW. It is a long-term goal of both the Government and the GCBW to replace expatriate workers with Bahrainis throughout all sectors of the economy and to create new jobs for Bahrainis seeking employment. The Labor Law is silent on the right to strike, and there were no strikes in 1996. 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 Law. There are no recent examples of major strikes, but walkouts and other job actions have been known to occur without governmental intervention and with positive results for the workers. The GCBW represents Bahraini workers at the International Labor Organization (ILO) and 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, the workers have no independent, recognized vehicle for representing their interests on these or other labor-related issues. JLC's hold discussions with management on some working conditions and limited aspects of wage issues. Minimum wage rates for public sector employees are established by Council of Minister 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. In practice, the labor laws apply for the most part only to citizens, and abuses occur, particularly those involving domestic workers and those working illegally. In some cases, workers arrive in Bahrain 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 abolish this illegal practice, which makes it difficult to monitor and control the employment conditions of domestic and other workers. However, no substantive action has yet been taken. Amendments to the Labor Law passed in November 1993 stiffened the penalties for engaging in visa 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. The sponsorship system leads to abuses. 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 its attention, but fear of deportation or employer retaliation prevent 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, are sometimes forced to work 12- or 16-hour days, given little time off, and are subjected to verbal and physical abuse.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

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 piecework basis. Child labor laws are effectively enforced by Ministry of Labor inspectors in the industrial sector; child labor outside that sector is less well monitored but is not believed to be significant outside family operated businesses.

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 workers and their families. The current minimum wage for the public sector is $236.60 (91 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 part of the salary. The Ministry of Labor enforces the labor laws, with periodic inspections and fines routinely imposed on violators. Provisions to the Labor Law passed in 1993 stiffened the fines and prison terms for certain violations. 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 Labor Ministry opens an investigation and often takes remedial action. 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 Fourth High Court (Labor) 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 are generally considered to favor the employee. Under the Labor Law workers have the right to remove themselves from dangerous work situations without jeopardy to their continued employment. In 1993 the Government strengthened the Labor Law by Amiri decree, 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 expatriates and is intended to reduce abuses against foreign workers who have sometimes been denied legal salaries. The law provides equal protection to Bahraini and foreign workers, but all foreign workers still require sponsorship by Bahrainis or Bahrain-based institutions and companies. Subject to sanctions for wrongful dismissal, 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. Foreign workers, particularly those from developing countries, are often unwilling to report abuses for fear of losing residence rights and having to return to their native countries. Instances of foreign workers being denied full wages, days off, vacations, or other guaranteed conditions of employment without compensation are periodically reported in the local press, as well as the court rulings or Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs actions taken in response. Nonetheless, government attempts to address individual abuses in these and other cases are often hampered by the workers' unwillingness to make a formal complaint. In addition, the Labor Law specifically favors citizens over foreign workers, followed by Arab expatriates over other foreign workers, in hiring and firing. Because employers include housing and other allowances in their salary scales, expatriate workers can legally be paid lower regular wages than their Bahraini counterparts, although they sometimes receive the same or a greater total compensation package because of home leave and holiday pay allowances. Western expatriates and Bahraini 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, nursing periods during the day, and up to 1 year of unpaid maternity leave. However, women are generally paid less than men.

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