Bahrain’s politics is characterized by sectarian dispute between the Sunni and Shia populations. Shia Muslims make up a majority of Bahrain’s population, constituting seventy-three percent of the total, while Sunni Muslims make up twenty-one percent. The rift between Sunni and Shia Muslims in Bahrain dates back to when Bahrain was a British protectorate. Britain recognized a royal Sunni family, Al-Khalifa, as the local rulers. The Iranian revolution in 1979 encouraged the Shia majority in Bahrain to protest against the Sunni monarchy. Bahrain transitioned to a constitutional monarchy in 2002. The Sunnis in power have been reluctant to allow proportional representation of the Shia majority in fear of Iranian influence in the Sunni-dominated Gulf region, and the Shia claim they are systemically oppressed.
In 2011, the political environment that sparked the Arab Spring reached the island kingdom, and the Shias in Bahrain comprised a majority of the protestors. After a few weeks of demanding greater economic opportunities including jobs, housing, and political rights, the protestors were met with a violent crackdown by Bahraini police. After a month, Bahrain allowed 1,500 troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to enter the country. Thousands of people were detained, tortured, and many died in custody. Two people detained were elected officials. Others included doctors who were treating protestors, journalists, and lawyers who defended the protestors. Police acted brutally with impunity against protestors and anyone who supported them, including doctors, journalists, and bloggers, which effectively quashed the uprising. King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa allowed an investigation by international jurists, but no high-ranking officials have had to answer for the deaths and torture endured by Bahraini civilians.
Since the uprising, many of the arbitrarily detained political activists have remained behind bars. The human rights abuses that occurred during the uprising have been backed by the government. Anyone who criticizes the government as a human rights defender or a political activist risks detention and unfair trial. For instance, in November 2016, the state charged Ebrahim Sharif, a well-known political activist, for “inciting hatred of the political system” after criticizing the government in an interview. Similarly, in May 2016, Bahrain’s High Court of Appeal increased the prison sentence of Sheikh Ali Salman to nine years, the Secretary-General of Al-Wifaq. Al-Wifaq is the main opposition group in the country. In June, a court ordered the dissolution of the group and confiscated its funds.
These actions by the state violate Bahraini citizens’ rights to freedom of speech and assembly. Bahrain is a party to the United Nations Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Bahrain violated Article 21 – granting freedom to peaceful assembly – by its violent suppression of the protests in 2011. Furthermore, it continues to violate Article 19, which guarantees the rights of citizens to express themselves freely. The government violates this provision when it arbitrarily charges and detains citizens who criticize the government. With the dissolution of Al-Wifaq, Bahrain violated Article 22, which grants individuals the freedom to associate with others. Because these actions disproportionately affect followers of the Shia sect of Islam, Bahrain is indirectly violating Article 18, Section 2, which protects individuals from coercion that would impair them from religious freedom, as Shias in Bahrain continue to face discrimination and systemic oppression, yet cannot protest their status in society.
Bahrain has stifled any form of opposition to the monarchy and government policies. This has provided temporary stability for the government, but history demonstrates that repression is not an effective means of maintaining a strong leadership. For Bahrain to ensure lasting stability, there must be gradual political reform that considers human rights, including space for free public dissent.