In a speech [transcript] on Sunday, Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa [official profile] promised to amend the nation's constitution [text] to allow the National Assembly [official profile] more oversight of ministers and cabinet members. If passed, the amendments would allow both houses of the National Assembly to monitor one another, as well as minister and cabinet appointments, whereas before this was the sole province of the King and Prime Minister. The speech also suggested new economic powers for the National Assembly, designed to allow the bodies to pass emergency budgets expediently. Al Khalifa did not explicitly reference any of the recent protests in Bahrain, instead commending his country's commitment to democracy and asking that dissenters pursue lawful solutions:
We cannot fail at this point to emphasize that democracy is not just literature, or constitutional and legislative provisions. Democracy is a culture and practice, commitment to the rule of law, respect for the international principles of human rights, coupled with serious national political action that represents all spectrums of society without exclusion or quotas. In parallel with this crucial step that we take today, we call for other important steps to be made to reinforce the democratic culture and practice on the land of our beloved country. Furthermore, we call upon all segments of society—the community and the family—to work together to ensure that our young people respect the law. This is a responsibility that must be shouldered by all, especially when respect for the law is linked to the principles of coexistence, tolerance, harmony and love.Although several officials praised the speech [BNA report] and reforms, others were less impressed. Opposition group Al Wefaq [advocacy website, in Arabic] rejected [press release, in Arabic] the proposed reforms, stating that the government is continuing to ignore the will of the people and will only increase the tension and violence in the nation. The amendments were referred to the Shura council [BNA report] later on Sunday.
Protests and demonstrations in Bahrain [BBC backgrounder] have been ongoing since February 2011 [JURIST report]. Earlier this month, a Bahraini court on overturned the death sentences for two protesters convicted of killing two police officers during the demonstrations that took place in the country last year. The original conviction [JURIST report] was rendered by a special security court set up as part of the emergency law in place while the country's Sunni rulers attempted to silence a Shiite-led to effort bolster civil and political rights in the country. In December, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said that the Bahrain government should release prisoners detained during peaceful protests [JURIST report] and focus on rebuilding national trust in the government. Pillay's statement followed a visit by a team of human rights officials to Bahrain at the invitation of the Bahrain government. In November, Al Khalifa ordered a special commission [JURIST report] to look into government recommendations made in a report by an independent Bahraini government commission. The report stated that Bahrain authorities used excessive force [JURIST report] and tortured detainees involved in the pro-democracy demonstrations earlier this year. Also in November, the Bahrain government admitted the use of excessive force [JURIST report] in anticipation of the independent report.