Bahrain’s judicial system is based on Islamic law and the common law model introduced by Britain before the country’s independence.
The provisions of Islamic Sharia are used with regard to personal status (family and inheritance law). Shari’a courts hear personal status matters for all Muslims, Bahrainis and non-citizens. Sharia courts include separate courts for Sunnis and Shiites.
Civil courts hear all criminal and civil cases and the personal status of non-Muslims.
The court system in Bahrain is divided into three levels: the Supreme Civil Court, the Supreme Court of Appeals, and the Court of Cassation.
The Supreme Judicial Council, established in 2000 and chaired by the king, oversees the judicial system. It should be noted that all judges are appointed.
In 1975, the Emir of Bahrain, Sheikh Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa, announced the establishment of the State Security Court to look into internal and external security issues.
Although this court was abolished in 2001, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa’s declaration of a state of emergency in March 2011 prompted him to establish a military court, in addition to the National Safety Court, with the aim of trying opposition members, headed by a military judge and two civilian judges. All are appointed by the Bahrain Defense Force.
A large number of opponents participating in the 2011 revolution were imprisoned without trial or subsequent trials, which drew international condemnation for the lack of due process and lack of transparency and for torture and ill-treatment during the investigation.
Many of these charges were detailed in a report issued by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (the Bassiouni Commission) in October 2011.
International human rights law strongly rejects trying civilians in military courts (which is forbidden in the Bahraini constitution in the absence of martial law) and limits the use of these courts in cases where civilian courts cannot perform their activities and trials before those courts must guarantee the rights of civilians fair trial.
However, Bahrain’s National Safety Courts violate basic requirements contained in international human rights law, as well as a number of provisions of Bahrain’s criminal law.
According to the report of the Bahraini Fact-Finding Mission, the special military courts have convicted about 300 defendants for what they described as “political crimes.” Even the Bahraini Attorney General’s office later said that more than 340 defendants had been convicted of crimes related to their right to freedom of expression.