In March 1999, Sheikh Isa bin Salman al-Khalifa, who had ruled since 1961, died. Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifa succeeded his father as head of state and instituted elections for parliament, gave women the right to vote and released all political prisoners; moves described by Amnesty International as representing an 'historic period for human rights'.
In 2001 a national charter for constitutional reforms was endorsed by the country's first ever national referendum and a year later, on 14 February, Bahrain was declared a constitutional monarchy and Sheikh Hamad its king. Bahrain was pronounced a constitutional monarchy in 2002, Sheikh Hamad changing his status from emir to king. The same year saw Bahrainis elect members to the National Assembly. Because King Hamad had established an appointed upper house in the national parliament, which had not been part of the charter approved in 2001, a number of groups (including the largest Shi'a association) called for an electoral boycott; turnout in the October elections was 53%. The elected deputies were largely moderate Sunnites and independents. The election marked the first time that women in a Arab Persian Gulf monarchy could vote or run for national office.
A prominent opposition figure, Majid Al Alawi, recently returned from exile, was appointed to a ministerial post in the new government. Early in 2003, there were further protests against the impending war against Iraq, and Bahrain’s role in hosting American and British forces. In May 2003, thousands of victims of alleged torture petitioned the King to cancel the law that prevents them from suing suspected torturers. These protests instigated a general concern for security in Bahrain, and in 2004, the protests against fighting in Iraqi cities once again materialized. However, the King sacked his Interior Minister after police tried to prevent the protests. These kind of moves seem to render the country more stable and King Hamad appears to have succeeded in quelling the Shi'a opposition – at least for the time being.
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