Ahead of Bahrain’s “National Day,” ADHRB Calls on the Government to meet its Reform Commitments

15 December 2017 – As the Bahraini government prepares its “National Day” celebrations for 16 December, marking the day the kingdom’s previous ruler Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa formally took power, Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) condemns the monarchy’s continued failure to institute promised democratic reforms. Specifically, ADHRB calls on the current king and the rest of the Bahraini government to fulfill their long overdue obligations under both the 2001 National Action Charter and the 2011 Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) to ensure greater protections for basic human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Though Bahrain formally gained independence from the United Kingdom in August 1971, the government has since designated 16 December 1971 as the original “National Day,” in honor of the ascendance of Emir Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa, father of Bahrain’s current king, Hamad bin Isa. Seeing this decision as a conflation of national origins with the Al Khalifa royal family, rather than independence, many Bahrainis refuse to recognize 16 December as the country’s legitimate “National Day.” This dissonance is exacerbated by the legacy of Emir Isa’s reign, which was characterized by autocratic consolidation, including the promulgation of a draconian and decades-long State Security Law in 1974, the arbitrary dissolution of parliament in 1975, and the violent suppression of the 1990s mass uprising that emerged in opposition to these repressive measures. By Emir Isa’s death in 1999, Bahrain had become a virtual police state under the absolute authority of the Al Khalifa family.

His son, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, ascended to the throne on the promise of scaling back the emir’s repression and liberalizing the political system. He changed the ruling title from emir to king – a move purported to imply a more robust responsibility for the welfare of the country’s citizenry – and proposed a sweeping reform program known as the National Action Charter, which was overwhelmingly supported in a nationwide referendum in February 2001. The National Action Charter was meant to serve as the foundation for a new constitution to replace its 1973 predecessor, restoring the original vision of Bahrain as a constitutional monarchy with representative, participatory institutions to check the power of the ruler. In turn, King Hamad declared an amnesty for activists and political opposition members imprisoned or exiled during his father’s reign, re-established a parliamentary system, and ended the 1974 State Security Law.

However, while these initial reforms appeared to position the country for eventual democratization, the Bahraini government took simultaneous steps to preserve the near-absolute authority of the royal family. A year after the National Action Charter was approved by referendum, the king unilaterally issued a new constitution that omitted or revised key provisions of the reform package. Rather than an independent, representative parliament, the new constitution established the bicameral National Assembly, made up of an elected lower house dominated by a royally appointed upper house. Even still, both houses were largely impotent, exercising little independent legislative or oversight authority. When elections did occur for the lower chamber, they were marred by gerrymandering meant to undermine opposition groups, sectarian discrimination intended to marginalize the Shia Muslim vote, and other electoral irregularities, including the expedited naturalization of foreign Sunnis working for the government and the judicial harassment of leading opposition figures.  Meanwhile, the government promulgated an array of new laws to restrict free expression, independent press, and political activity.

While King Hamad again promised wide-ranging reforms following the government’s violent suppression of the 2011 pro-democracy uprising – which itself was organized around the tenth anniversary of the unimplemented National Action Charter – substantive changes failed to materialize. The elected lower house of the National Assembly was bestowed with nominally increased powers and the king pledged to implement all 26 recommendations issued by the BICI, a committee of jurists established to investigate the human rights abuses that occurred during the 2011 unrest. Yet, six years on – and despite government claims to the contrary – the authorities have failed to institute the vast majority of BICI recommendations, going so far as to reverse one of the only fully implemented reforms by restoring domestic law enforcement powers to the country’s notorious National Security Agency (NSA) in 2017. The National Assembly remains practically subservient to the government, and the security forces have systematically eradicated independent political opposition groups, forcibly dissolving the two largest societies, Al-Wefaq and Wa’ad. The authorities have imprisoned large swathes of the groups’ memberships, including Al-Wefaq’s leader, Sheikh Ali Salman, whose arrest and deportation was also key factor in the 1990s uprising. Simultaneously, they have carried out wide-ranging reprisal campaigns against independent civil society at large – targeting prominent human rights defenders and religious figures like Nabeel Rajab and Sheikh Isa Qassim, respectively – while closing down Bahrain’s only independent newspaper, Al-Wasat, and effectively criminalizing all forms of peaceful dissent under excessive legislation like the Law of Protecting Society from Terrorist Acts. This year has been Bahrain’s most violent since the 1990s, with the government ending its de facto moratorium on the death penalty by executing three prisoners tortured into providing false confessions and launching two lethal raids on a peaceful sit-in, ultimately leaving six demonstrators dead.

Yet, ahead of the next elections for the lower house of the National Assembly set for 2018, the government claims to have implemented all reforms set out in both the National Action Charter and the BICI. It even claims to have implemented many of the recommendations issued in its past United Nations Universal Periodic Review Cycles. These claims are demonstrably false. Therefore, on this “National Day,” ADHRB calls on the Government of Bahrain to heed these obligations and truly commit to a national reform program that will open up political and civil society space in the new year, rather than continue down a path toward absolute monarchy.

“The history of Bahrain is a history of the government’s broken promises, followed inevitably by the brutal suppression of those who dare to demand their rights,” said Husain Abdulla, ADHRB’s executive director. “The current king, like his father before him, has hid behind brief illusions of political liberalization while violently ensuring all real power remains vested in the royal family. In the continued absence of strong international pressure, Bahrain will be little more than a dictatorship – complete with meaningless parliamentary plebiscites – by the next ‘National Day.’”