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Familiar refrain characterizes Posner’s remarks at Congressional hearing on Bahrain

Assistant Secretary of State (Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor) Michael Posner appeared as a witness at the Tom Lantos Commission on Human Rights hearing yesterday in Washington, DC.

In his remarks, Mr. Posner restated many of the points he has made on other occasions.  He diverged very little from the stance the State Department has taken almost from the beginning of the conflict in Bahrain.  He reiterated that the abuse of human rights in Bahrain is Bahrain’s problem to solve, praised the government’s progress toward reform, and affirmed the Administration’s partnership with the regime.  He also expressed concern about the trials and imprisonment of activists and medics, but stopped short of saying Nabeel Rajab should be released, when questioned on that point, seeming to suggest that the arrest and detention may be considered a legitimate action for some unexpressed reason.

Frustrating to this observer, Posner once again drew the  comparison between violent acts by protesters and the regime’s security forces.  It is misleading to compare a few isolated, but unfortunate, violent incidents by a small minority of protesters with the daily and systematic, full-scale assaults by the vastly more vicious and better-armed regime security forces, including unprovoked attacks on peaceful demonstrators and innocent bystanders.  There is no parity here in force or impact, nor is there any evidence of parity, yet Posner continues to call on both sides to exercise restraint with equal emphasis.

To add insult to injury, he stated that the same government that tortured its citizens, imprisoned activists, and prosecuted its doctors showed “courage” in owning up to its offenses to the world in the face of undeniable proof.

Courage is not a term that most people of conscience equate with the government of Bahrain these days.

Notably absent from his remarks were any comments on the use of tear gas, bird shot pellets, and rubber bullets, nor did he make any reference to the children and adults who had been maimed or killed by security forces and the deplorable prison conditions suffered by the unjustly imprisoned political activists.

Few were surprised when Representative Dan Burton expressed satisfaction with Mr. Posner’s remarks at the conclusion of his testimony.

The text of his testimony, plus video link, is below.


Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for holding this hearing and for your sustained concern about Bahrain and the current challenges there. I appreciate the opportunity to appear here today to outline the administration’s views with respect to Bahrain.

Context: Bahrain is an important strategic partner at a crossroads

We all recognize Bahrain’s importance as a longtime partner of the United States in the Gulf region. For more than 60 years, the United States military has worked closely with its Bahraini counterparts. The Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain, and the country serves as a pillar of our regional security strategy in the Gulf region. The U.S. – Bahrain relationship is particularly important in the face of rising threats from Iran.

Our longstanding alliance with Bahrain is based on shared political, economic, and security interests. And it is in part because of this important strategic relationship that we have devoted so much attention to Bahrain in the last 18 months. The demonstrations and violent confrontations that shook Bahrain last February and March were traumatic to all segments of Bahraini society. And although the violence has diminished significantly in recent months, Bahrain is still a deeply divided nation struggling to regain its equilibrium.

As partners and friends who care deeply about Bahrain’s future, we must be straightforward in our assessments. This is not a time for complacency or wishful thinking. It is a time for the United States and others to work with the government and the political opposition and to urge a new approach to dialogue, about which I will say more in a moment.

It is in this challenging political context that I have traveled to Bahrain five times in the last 18 months, most recently in June, each time meeting with senior government officials, lawyers, journalists, medical professionals, civil society groups, human rights advocates, and several political societies. This visit, my meetings focused on 1) the current situation for human rights in Bahrain following the unrest in February and March of last year, 2) the need for inclusive dialogue and negotiation, and 3) implementation of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry report.

The current situation for human rights in Bahrain

In a number of ways, Bahrain today is more stable than it was a year ago. Last year, the government showed courage in inviting Cherif Bassiouni to initiate the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI). The BICI process was unprecedented both in its scope and the unfettered access the BICI team were granted. King Hamad deserves great credit for initiating this commission and for allowing an independent body to take a critical look at Bahrain’s human rights record and to report so extensively on its findings. We also commend the King for accepting and committing to implement the recommendations of the BICI report. And after a worrying period of rising violence in the streets by both demonstrators and police, violence has subsided this summer.

Despite these positive accomplishments, my recent visit revealed deep divisions within Bahraini society and between many Bahrainis and their government. Almost nightly confrontations, including a number that end in violence between young protestors and the police, and the recent discovery of sophisticated bomb-making materials in Salmabad and Hamad Town punctuate the need for urgent action to heal the divisions in society and bring peace and prosperity to all of its people.

We are concerned that more than a year after the release of the BICI report, we see reports of continuing reprisals against Bahraini citizens who attempt to exercise their universal rights to free expression and assembly. For example, on March 31, 2012, Ahmed Ismail Hassan, a 22-year-old videographer, was shot and killed while filming a pro-reform demonstration. This is one incident in a pattern of reports of activists and demonstrators being injured and mistreated in interactions with the police.

Moreover, permits for organized demonstrations are often denied. Over the past month, Bahrain has stopped granting permits for organized demonstrations in central Manama, and has announced a study to identify suitable locations for protests away from the downtown area. While the study may be a useful opportunity to initiate constructive dialogue, including with the opposition, it must not be used as a mechanism to restrict the universal right to peaceful protest. At the same time, we urge Wifaq and others who organize demonstrations to do their utmost to ensure that those gatherings remain peaceful.

Urgent need for dialogue

Since February and March 2011 there have been numerous calls – including by Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, President Obama, Secretary Clinton, and members of the international community – for broad political dialogue that will lead to a way forward on political reform.

While dialogue and negotiation can only occur among Bahrainis themselves, as a friend and partner of Bahrain, the United States has encouraged dialogue in a variety of different forms over the last 18 months. But despite numerous attempts, attempts at dialogue have broken down. There is little evidence that Bahrain is moving toward a negotiated political agreement on issues such as the powers of parliament and electoral districting.

On my recent visit, I observed that both people in the government and the political opposition felt that time is on their side. This is a misguided and dangerous perception. Bahrain needs dialogue and negotiation to build a strong national consensus about its political future, strengthen its economic standing, and make it a more prosperous country and a more stable ally of the United States. We are pursuing a two-track strategy to reinforce those elements within Bahraini society that are working to promote meaningful dialogue and negotiation.

On the first track, we continue to encourage the government, all political organizations, and civil society to come to the table for a broad, open negotiation about the political future of the country. The current stalemate requires bold leadership from all sides – people who are ready to negotiate now, without preconditions, and to trust the other sides to come to the table in a spirit of investment in Bahrain’s political, economic, and social future. As we have said, the country’s political future is a matter for Bahrainis to negotiate themselves. But as the government did with the BICI process, there is room to invite technical facilitation of Bahraini-led dialogue.

On the second track, we also are encouraging the government to sit down with political and civil society organizations, and ordinary citizens, to try to make progress on issues that matter to people’s everyday lives, such as safety, health, education, labor, and policing.

One positive example of this kind of engagement is the Tripartite Committee’s work with the International Labor Organization (ILO), Bahraini employers, the Bahrain Federation of Trade Unions, and the Ministry of Labor to resolve the longstanding issue of reinstatement of more than 2,000 dismissed workers. We are encouraged by the success of this effort, both in terms of a fair outcome for many of the dismissed workers and the process that led to this outcome. Working with the ILO, the different stakeholders negotiated with each other over the course of several weeks to agree on an inclusive approach for evaluating and making decisions about how to resolve the issue of dismissed workers. While there will no doubt be bumps in the road, there the partners developed a framework for making decisions that shared power among the different stakeholders.

The issue of public safety and policing practices is another area that we see as being ripe for this kind of dialogue and negotiation. We are encouraged by steps undertaken by the Ministry of Interior to initiate some institutional reforms that will make the police more accountable and professional. The change in leadership in the police under General Tariq al Hassan, a career police officer, also is an encouraging sign. We await the results of the announced plan to hire 500 new officers who represent all elements of Bahraini society. And we welcome the announcement earlier this week by the Minister of the Interior that his office will launch investigations of the human rights violations by police officers documented in the BICI report.

But it is not enough for the government to dictate solutions to problems with policing amidst ongoing reports of the abuse of tear gas, birdshot, and other disproportionate mechanisms to control crowds and silence peaceful protestors. While we have consistently condemned the use of Molotov cocktails and other violent measures by some demonstrators, we also have been consistent in our criticism of the use of excessive force by some police.

What underlies the use of excessive force by police and the use of violent tactics by protestors is a fundamental lack of trust between the police and the people whom the police are meant to serve. Trust can only begin to be established through genuine dialogue between the police and the communities they serve. We encourage the government to take the lead in establishing a forum or a process – perhaps with outside technical facilitation – for discussion of public safety and policing practices.

One model we have discussed regularly with the government and others is the Patten Commission, which worked over the course of several years to redefine the mission and practices of police in Northern Ireland. For such a process to work, citizens, community and religious leaders, and civil society organizations must be willing to engage with the government and the police to begin rebuilding the trust that will lead to genuine stability and peace in Bahraini communities.

BICI implementation

The United States continues to encourage the Government of Bahrain to fulfill its commitment to fully implement the recommendations of the BICI report. We understand that full implementation will take time. We commend the government for the initial steps it took toward implementation, particularly in the period leading up to the release of the National Commission report in March 2012.

The Government of Bahrain has taken many important steps toward the long-term institutional reforms identified in the report, such as removing arrest authority from the national security agency, drafting legislation concerning the investigation and prosecution of torture, and drafting a code of conduct for police based on international best practices. The government also has allowed the International Committee of the Red Cross access to its prisons. It has begun to rebuild religious sites, and engaged a team of qualified experts to advise on policing and legal reforms. These are signs of the government’s commitment to address the underlying cause of last year’s violence.

The Government of Bahrain needs to take action on the full range of other BICI recommendations that we believe will help lay the foundation for longer-term reform and reconciliation. These include dropping charges against all persons accused of offenses involving peaceful political expression including freedom of assembly, prosecuting those officials responsible for the violations identified in the BICI report, and ensuring fair and expeditious trials in appeals cases. It also means continuing work to professionalize and diversify Bahrain’s security forces to reflect the communities which they serve.

First, there are several hundred pending criminal cases related to the events of February and March 2011. Many individuals have been in detention for over a year. The government continues to prosecute 20 political activists and appeals cases are ongoing in the prosecution of respected medical professionals. In addition to the ongoing cases against doctors and nurses, we are discouraged by the Court of Appeals’ decision to issue a gag-order banning the media from reporting on trials for the 20 high-profile activists. We urge the Government of Bahrain to ensure fair and expeditious trials in appeals cases and to drop charges against all persons accused of offenses involving political expression and freedom of assembly.

The United States was deeply disappointed that, despite assurances to the contrary, the government sought and received convictions in nine of 18 felony cases against medical professionals before the appellate court, with sentences ranging from one month to five years. While we are not privy to all of the facts, we have consistently urged the government to exercise prosecutorial discretion in these cases and to drop the charges in the interest of turning the page on the events of last year.

The prosecution of these cases is a sign of larger divisions within the health care system in Bahrain. I was alarmed to hear reports from all sides of Bahraini society during my recent visit about the tense environment for medical care in Bahrain. Young men often elect not to seek treatment in public clinics and hospitals when they are injured for fear of being turned in to the police by their doctors on allegations of participating in demonstrations. I also heard that Shi’a Bahrainis now only seek treatment from Shi’a doctors and Sunnis only seek treatment from Sunnis. And the ongoing felony cases against some of Bahrain’s most highly specialized doctors means the country is facing a shortage of talent in critical specialties. There is much work to be done to heal the divisions in the health care system and restore the reputation of Bahrain as a regional leader in medical services.

Second, we call on the Government of Bahrain to hold accountable those officials responsible for the violations described in the BICI report. At the beginning of the year, the government reported that 48 people from the security forces were being investigated for their roles in suppressing protests. So far only nine policemen – five Pakistani and one Yemeni national and three Bahrainis – are known to have been brought to trial for human rights violations. Very little information has been made public about how these investigations were conducted and their trials have been repeatedly adjourned and postponed.

Third, as discussed above, further efforts need to be made to enhance the professionalization of the police. Ongoing violence in the streets between police and protesters points to the need for professional, integrated police and security forces that reflect the diversity of the communities they serve and that adopt a community policing approach.

Bahrain and the Arab Awakening

In conclusion, I want to say a word about Bahrain in the context of the Arab Awakening and the transitions occurring in places like Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. Many people wish to compare Bahrain to other countries in the region such as Tunisia or Egypt. While some comparisons may be valid, it also is very important to recognize the unique history and political and economic development in each of these countries, and to shape our policies accordingly. President Obama has said that stable, democratic societies make the best partners and allies. And so while there is no single path or timetable to forging a real democracy, there are a core set of underlying principles that, as Secretary Clinton recently noted “have to be enshrined not only in the constitution, not only in the institutions of government, but in the hearts and minds of the people.”

Our aim is to encourage all sides to come to the table so that meaningful dialogue and negotiation can get underway in a process that will begin to heal existing divisions within the society and set Bahrain on a course toward greater freedom and prosperity for all Bahrainis. As a partner and friend, the United States stands ready to support the government and the people of Bahrain as they seek pathways toward meaningful dialogue about the future of the country.

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Matar Ebrahim Matar asks for U.S. Congressional support for specific reforms for Bahrain

In his testimony before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in Washington, DC yesterday, Matar Ebrahim Matar asked for Congressional support for three specific reforms he felt would bring about positive change in Bahrain: a national unity government, a Special National court, and an action plan for police reform.  The text of his remarks is below.

Good afternoon,

It is my pleasure to participate today in this hearing about the situation in my country Bahrain. First, let me thank Congress for their recognition of the struggle in Bahrain and for holding this event. I hope can reach a tangible outcome from this hearing.

Also I would like to thank Senator Wyden, Congressman McGovern and all the Representatives and Senators who have shown commitment to the case of Bahrain.

Having Assistant Secretary Mr. Michael Posner with us here is highly appreciated by me and by many Bahrainis.

Being on Capitol Hill to participate in this hearing reminds me of Abduljalil AlSingase and Nabeel Rajab. They gave congressional briefings and both of them are in prison now.

Before going into detail about the status of the BICI recommendations, let me describe for you the big picture. Based on The Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index, Bahrain is considered an authoritarian regime. This fact had been represented in BICI in a different manner. Article 50 stated that “The King enjoys broad executive powers.”

The Democracy Index also considered Bahrain an Absolute Monarchy and I believe that absolute power is an absolute devil. The King always denies this fact and calls Bahrain a Constitutional Monarchy.  Here is the root cause of our major problems. It is denial. After denial, few options remain: either to ignore all the ongoing violations and problems or to find excuses for them. No genuine step can be taken without facing the problems.

In this Index (Democracy Index) Bahrain is worse than Cuba, China and Vietnam. Many countries were progressing and the most improved country was Tunisia which jumped 53 steps. On the other hand, the most undisputed declining country in the world was Bahrain. It fell 22 steps to be one of worst 25 countries in the world.

It is difficult for this regime to respect human rights and freedoms.  If the regime is not ready to share the wealth and power, they don’t have an option except to continue oppressing the people to control the situation. Knowing this fact explains having elected members of the municipality council as part of the dismissed workers list.

Even before the uprising, it wasn’t difficult for observers to expect deterioration in Bahrain. All those who were monitoring the trial of 25 activists heard the testimonies about torture and they could imagine where things were going.

In 2010, I raised those signs of deterioration in front of Madam Secretary Hillary Clinton when she was visiting Bahrain and I asked her if there was a certain limit for the violations of human rights by a US strategic ally.  Part of Madam Secretary’s reply was to encourage to looking at the “Full side of the glass instead of just looking at the empty one.” She was talking about how Bahrain is leading the Gulf region in a different manner.  Listening to the recent speech for Madam Hilary Clinton at the Holocaust Museum when she was talking about “prevention and response strategies” for “campaigns of harassment and violence against groups of people because of their ethnic, racial, religious, or political backgrounds” in addition to her talk about “moral obligation,” I wonder, does such deterioration in the situation in Bahrain trigger revision of the current policies? Are there prevention and response strategies for the ongoing violations in Bahrain?

I’m not here to ask for help. I’m not asking the US government to fight for democracy and freedom instead of Bahrainis. The issue is not just about the moral obligation of Americans’ principles and values. It is about considering one of the most deteriorating countries a major US non-NATO ally. It is also about the obligations of running one of the most important US bases through support of such brutal regime. Does it need a lot of research for the conclusion to be reached by experts in national security and military that such regimes are not sustainable?

Comparing Bahrain with the Gulf Countries, it is hard for me to admit the fact that Bahrain is weak. It is weak in terms of economy, complicated demography, and being between two giant countries such as Saudi and Iran. It is a very bad feeling to see Bahrain used and pay the price for the ongoing conflict in the region.

Any other attempt will not solve the problem, and will just give more time to the regime to commit more violations. After more than 16 months since the imposition of martial law, and with the BICI report being there for 9 months, more violations were committed and not fewer. This is an indicator that whatever was done to implement the BICI recommendations was actually empty from its purpose and did not help to change the situation on the ground.

I don’t want to talk a lot about how the regime failed to implement most of the recommendations and vacuumed them from their purpose. For that I would like to refer you to my respected colleagues in Human Rights Watch and Physicians for Human Rights to give you their assessment. Also I would like to refer you to the recent Amnesty International report and to the documents that I have provided which thoroughly explain why we think the regime is not serious about implementing BICI’s recommendations.

To play a constructive role in this struggle, I urge Congress to support the following steps:

  • In any country that has such political trouble, the easiest solution is to bring a national unity government that includes all sides. We suggest 50:50 opposition/loyalists, led by an agreed Prime Minister. This government will be responsible for implementing BICI in full, addressing reconciliation, and promoting dialogue.
  • A Special National court, with international expertise and monitoring, shall be established to address accountability for all crimes committed since 14 February 2011 from all sides.
  • A serious action plan shall agree on police reform, like what happened in South Africa, Northern Ireland, and others, that ensures inclusive security and with immediate effect.
  • Finally, I recommend stopping all security and military engagement with Bahrain if this plan is not established.

Thanks again, it was my pleasure and honor to be here today.

[End of testimony]

Congressional Hearing on BICI to take place Wednesday, August 1

Public Congressional hearing on Bahrain

The Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission will hold a hearing this Wednesday in Washington, DC to hear witnesses report on the extent to which the government of Bahrain has implemented the human rights protections recommendations made by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry in November 2011.

The hearing is open to the public and will take place in Room 2237 of the Rayburn House Office Building (second floor) on Wednesday, August 1, from 1 pm to 3 pm.

The Rayburn Office Building occupies a site southwest of the Capitol bounded by Independence Avenue, South Capitol Street, C Street S.W., and First Street S.W. (View map) in Washington, DC.

Witnesses will appear in three panels.

The witness for the first panel will be Ron Wyden, U.S. Senator for Oregon.  Senator Wyden was one of 24 senators and congressional representatives to oppose the sale of arms to Bahrain.

The witness for the second panel will be Michael Posner, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.  Mr. Posner has visited Bahrain five times in the past two years, the most recently on June 12 of this year, when he spoke to the press at the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain.

Four witnesses will testify on the third and final panel.  They will be

Matar Ebrahim Matar, former member of Bahrain’s parliament and leading member of Al Wefaq National Islamic Society, the largest political party in Bahrain.  Mr. Matar recently appeared on Al Jazeera’s television news program, The Stream (video link) to opine about the state of reforms in Bahrain.

Leslie Campbell, Senior Associate Director and Regional Director of Middle East and North Africa Programs, National Democratic Institute.  Headquartered in Washington, DC, the National Democratic Institute was formed by the U.S. government to foster movements toward democracy in foreign nations, and is funded both by taxpayers (through the State Department and other agencies) and by contributions from foreign governments (including, notably, the Kingdom of Bahrain) and donations from others.  The organization’s work in Bahrain has focused on encouraging citizen participation in elections.

Tom Walinowski, Director of Human Rights Watch.  Human Rights Watch is a New York-based nonprofit organization that has advocated for human rights in Bahrain.

Richard Sollom, Deputy Director of Physicians for Human Rights.  This organization has advocated for dismissal of charges against the Bahraini medics and has called for a cease of the indiscriminate and excessive use of tear gas in Bahrain, which has been linked to fatalities and miscarriages.  The nonprofit is based in Massachusetts.

Directions from Metro

From Union Station:

Start off going around Columbus Circle and joining 1st Street Northeast, going south. Take a left onto D Street, and shortly afterward a right onto 2nd Street Northeast.  Follow 2nd Street South until it becomes 2nd Street Southeast, then take a right onto C Street Southeast.  Follow C Street down the hill.  The Rayburn House Office Building will be the fourth large building on your right, at the bottom of the hill.

From Capitol South Station:

Start off walking north on 1st Street, and cross C Street. Take a left and walk down the hill, following C Street. The Rayburn House Office Building will be the third large building on your right, at the bottom of the hill.

From Federal Center Southwest Station:

Start off walking north on 3rd Street, and take a right at C Street.  Follow C Street to 2nd Street, then cross the road and the park. Stay on C Street across the roads, and you will see the Rayburn House Office Building on your left.

The Tom Lantos Commission is co-chaired by James P. McGovern and Frank R. Wolf.

Torture continues in Bahrain, eight months after BICI report

The BICI report was released on November 23, 2011.

Today, on July 9, 2012, protesters and anyone unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time in Bahrain are still being shot, teargassed, beaten, detained, and tortured.

Eight months of promises and very little improvement on the human rights front.

Photos tell the story…

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Amnesty International releases annual human rights report; reports on Bahrain

List of Nobel Peace Prize laureates

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today, Amnesty International released its annual report on human rights, The Amnesty International Annual Report 2012
The State of the World’s Human Rights.  The entire report may be viewed online or downloaded, and the section on Bahrain may also be viewed online.

Amnesty International reports that delegates visited Bahrain for research and government meetings in February, April and November 2011.  A medical expert participated in the February visit and a policing expert took part in the April visit. In November, Amnesty International delegates were among those present when the BICI presented its report to the King.

Executive Summary:

Bahrain experienced an acute human rights crisis in which at least 47 people were killed, including five members of the security forces and five people who died in custody as a result of torture. Security forces used excessive force against peaceful protesters and detained hundreds of people, including prisoners of conscience. Many detainees were tortured and otherwise ill-treated. Hundreds of civilian detainees received unfair trials before military courts; leading opposition activists were sentenced to up to life imprisonment. People who demonstrated against the government, including students, were dismissed from their jobs and from university. An independent inquiry by international experts appointed by the King confirmed the serious human rights violations and called for independent investigations, accountability and other reforms. Five people were sentenced to death; two had their sentences reduced at appeal. There were no executions.

For more details of human rights abuses, please read the Bahrain report.

New Country Report on Human Rights Practices released – Bahrain section

Today, the U.S. State Department issued its annual “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices”, the latest edition being for the year 2011.  The report is mandated by Congress and has been produced for more than 30 years.  It is designed to inform legislators about conditions in more than 200 countries as the lawmakers make decisions about distribution of foreign aid and military aid.

The section regarding human rights in Bahrain in 2011 is 37 pages in length (2011 Country Report on Human Rights Practices – Bahrain (PDF)) and chronicles the worst abuses of 2011, particularly those that took place between February and June, and identifies many areas of concern to activists worldwide, including the Bahrain Coordinating Committee.  The report draws heavily from accounts in the BICI report, which is typical of other country reports — the reports are compiled from many sources, as well as from accounts by human rights officers in U.S. embassies.

The most egregious human rights problems reported in 2011 included the inability of citizens to peacefully change their government; the dismissal and expulsion of workers and students for engaging in political activities; the arbitrary arrest and detention of thousands, including medical personnel, human rights activists, and political figures, sometimes leading to their torture and/or death in detention; and lack of due process.

Other significant human rights concerns included arbitrary deprivation of life; detention of prisoners of conscience; reported violations of privacy and restrictions on civil liberties, including freedoms of speech, press, assembly, association, and some religious practices. In some instances the government imposed and enforced travel bans on political activists. Discrimination on the basis of gender, religion, nationality, and sect persisted, especially against the Shia population. The government demolished multiple Shia religious sites and structures during the year. There were reports of domestic violence against women and children. Trafficking in persons and restrictions on the rights of foreign workers continued to be significant problems.