Bahrain's parliament tests kingdom, demands resignations

Special to World
Sunday, January 11, 2004< /FONT>

ABU DHABI Bahrain's parliament has demanded the dismissal of several ministers in what has been regarded as a major test of the kingdom's commitment to democracy.

Members of the Islamic-dominated parliament have called for the resignation of at least three ministers for their role in the collapse of two pension funds in the kingdom. The ministers were accused of graft and mismanagement in an unprecedented five-hour televised parliamentary session on Saturday in which the government was openly attacked.

"This is an issue that affects our next generations," parliamentarian Ali Ahmed said. "We shall not compromise."

Twenty members, or half the parliament, spoke at the first of two special sessions to discuss the collapse of the two state-sponsored pension funds. A 1,200-page report released by a parliamentary committee asserted that three ministers used tens of millions of dollars from the pension funds for failed investments driven by political interests.

The report said the government drew money from the General Organization for Social Insurance, responsible for 62,000 private sector employees, for donations to charities. The charities were not cited.

"We demand that those responsible step down," parliamentarian Isa Al Mutawa said. "We ask the government to punish whoever is proven guilty of misusing the public trust."

The report said Finance Minister Abdullah Seif, who chaired one of the pension funds, and former Labor Minister Nabil Al Shoula "bear the full responsibility for the financial and administrative transgressions, the spread of bureaucracy, the lack of a special investment placement body within both funds and the lack of a monitoring body." The current labor minister, Majid Al Alawi, has also been accused of wrong-doing.

The parliamentary committee recommended raising the retirement age from 50 to 55 for men and from 45 to 50 for women to save the fund. Another recommendation was for pension contributions to be increased from the current 15 percent to eventually 25 percent of salaries.

On Wednesday, parliament will hold the second session on the failed pension funds. Parliamentarians have called on the government to return the money taken from the pension funds and impose administrative reforms.

The government has denied improprieties in the administration of the pension funds. Cabinet Affairs Minister Mohammed Al Mutawa, who appealed for cooperation from parliament, said the funds have reserves of 800 million dinars, or more than $2 billion, and remain sound.

"I hope they realize this fact and extend their hands to us," Al Mutawa said. "They need us as much as we need them."

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