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Clerics barred from politics: A week in politics

12 – 18 May 2016

This week marks a significant milestone in efforts to prevent the exploitation of religion for political ends, with parliamentary approval for a bill banning serving clerics from engaging in politics and being members of political societies.

The below report also extensively discusses proposals for changing the law to prevent rapists escaping punishment by marrying their victim.

Politics ban for clerics

On 17 May the elected Parliament voted on a draft bill submitted by the Government which banned membership of political societies or other political activity for active clerics and preachers. This proposal originated in the Shura Council, where it was approved in a vote on 6 December 2015.

Prospects for passing the bill initially looked doubtful, particularly as Parliament’s Legal Committee had recommended against approval, in particular criticizing the vague term “men of religion”.

Justice Minister Shaikh Khalid Bin-Ali argued that “the aim of this bill is that those who are active in politics do not sectarianize it; while those who work from the religious pulpit do not politicize it”. He warned that in recent elections religious figures had exploited their influence for political ends.

There was lengthy debate about the definition of “men of religion”, which looked set to undo the entire proposal. However, the Justice Minister agreed to suggestions by conservative MPs Jamal Dawoud and Abdulrahman Bumjaid (Chairman of the National Bloc) to reword the bill, spelling out that it targeted those active in preaching and evangelical activity.

Bumjaid himself was supportive of the bill, pointing out that the leadership of some political societies had “toyed with religious roles and then travelled round the world attacking Bahrain’s reputation and its leadership”. However Ali Bufarsan (also from Bumjaid’s National Bloc) opposed the proposal strongly, saying that it would simply cause clerics to drive the activities of political societies from behind the scenes. He also claimed that the principle of separating state and religion was unconstitutional.

Arguably, the most outspoken opponent of the bill was Shia cleric Majid al-Asfour who warned that the law would deprive Parliament of the necessary skills and capabilities possessed by religious scholars.

It should be noted that the previous week Al-Asfour resigned from the National Participation Bloc (leaving behind eight MPs in the bloc), most of whom were supportive of the bill. Al-Asfour questioned why journalists and scholars weren’t also being excluded from politics.

The Justice Minister replied that journalism was all about managing a diversity of opinions. However, in the domain of religious belief, other views are automatically excluded, which is why this is dangerous in the field of politics.

Parliament Deputy Chairman Ali al-Aradi also added his support to the bill, saying that it “cleaned up” the domain of religion by distancing it from politics. He stressed that the aim was not to discriminate against clerics.

In a statement earlier in the week, the outspoken MP Khaled al-Shaer issued a statement in which he questioned how people could “talk about a secular state and use democratic slogans, at a time that clerics were exploiting the pulpit to mobilize and direct their followers against segments of society; and incitement against the state’s laws. This contradicts the most basic foundations of democracy, human rights and international conventions – which some people are seeking to play with so as to deceive public opinion.”

In the event, a majority of MPs approved the draft, which means that the bill with its amended wording goes on to the Shura Council for approval.

Rape legislation

As Citizens for Bahrain recently reported, the Shura Council had been due to vote on a bill preventing a legal loophole banning a rapist from escaping justice by marrying his victim.

However, the Shura Council vote was delayed when it emerged that an almost identical bill was due to go to the elected House of Representatives this week. Chairwoman of the Legal Committee Dallal al-Zayid successfully requested a delay in order to see what happened to the bill in the other Parliament chamber.

Second Deputy Chairwoman of the Shura Council Jamila Salman said that a rapist’s desire for marriage could never exempt him from punishment: “Our society rejects the principle that somebody should be married off out of fear of society; treating the female victim as if she is the criminal and as if the crime could be hidden from society by marriage”.

In the event, the large amount of legislation being discussed in Parliament this Tuesday meant that this second bill was also delayed a further week.

The Council of Representatives Defence Committee had recommended that Parliament supports the bill, particularly after supportive statements from the Social Development Ministry, the Supreme Council for Women and the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs.

However, there were two dissenting voices, the Interior Ministry stated that the original law “aimed to maintain and protect family relations as well as to act as a deterrent through giving the victim the option of marrying the criminal so as to protect the honour of her family and avoid dishonor to the family through talk that could impact the regard of society for the victim and her family”.

Likewise, the National Institution for Human Rights submitted a statement in support of the original law, saying that “marriage between the rapist and his victim according to the legal text under consideration necessitates that the (violated) woman be willing. She cannot be compelled to marry the rapist who violated her… Therefore the Institution recommends maintaining the law is it was originally, as long as the marriage contract between the rapist and the female victim is enacted with her full blessing and without compelling her”.

Citizens for Bahrain viewpoint

No crime should be hidden out of fear of incorrect and judgmental beliefs from parts of society. The emphasis should be on raising the awareness of society, in order that innocent victims of violent crime are supported and regarded with compassion and sympathy.

The starting point for this bill should be that no right-thinking woman would freely choose to marry someone who attacked and violated her. However, there are of course circumstances where a woman may feel compelled to do so through pregnancy or rejection by her family.

Under the current system, the court has no way of knowing whether a woman who chooses marriage to her rapist is under pressure behind the scenes from her family and others.

For the sake of the woman’s own protection, we should take it for granted that such a decision can rarely be the right one for her. Even if the woman claims she desires marriage – a crime has still been committed and there should be punishment.

As the explanatory documents accompanying the draft bill explain, the existing law “encourages rapists and abusers to pursue such crimes, as long as there is a possibility of avoiding a sentence through signing a marriage contract”.

The first and foremost priority must be protecting the rights of vulnerable women and not putting them in a situation where there is an incentive to assault them or a likelihood that they be forced to marry against their will through emotional blackmail and threats of violence. 

 

 

Week in politics

Continued reform efforts5 – 11 May 2016

Social media attacks: 20-27 April 2016

Shura Council rejects “Islamicization”: 7-13 April 2016

CEDAW victory: 31 March – 6 April 2016

MPs reject budget statement: 24 – 30 March 2016

Pensions dispute: 17 – 23 March 2016

Committees of inquiry: 10 – 16 March 2016

Protection for Shia families: 3 – 9 March 2016

Political societies in decline: 25 Feb - 2 Mar

Lebanon travel restrictions: 19-24 Feb

Constitution celebrations: 11-18 Feb

Russia State visit: 4-10 Feb

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