The United Nations Habitat Program made a poor choice in presenting its annual award for 2006 to the prime minister of Bahrain, Human Rights Watch said today. Habitat is giving its Special Citation of the Habitat Scroll of Honor Award to Shaikh Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa in Geneva on July 2.

Shaikh Khalifa, who has served as Bahrain’s only prime minister since the country’s independence in 1971, presided over several decades of severe political repression in the country, including the systematic torture, arbitrary arrest, and forced exile of political opponents. Shaikh Khalifa and his late brother, Shaikh Isa, the country’s emir, suspended the country’s first constitution and partially elected parliament in 1975 and set up a system of State Security Courts that, until the new ruler abolished them in 2001, sentenced thousands of suspected dissidents to long years in prison, many on the basis of confessions obtained under torture.

“A person with a human rights record as poor as that of Shaikh Khalifa should not be getting a UN award of any kind,” said Steve Crawshaw, UN advocacy director of Human Rights Watch. “Political repression cannot simply be put to one side.”

The Habitat press release announcing the award to Shaikh Khalifa cited “his impressive efforts in lifting the living standards of all Bahrainis” and applauded his “efforts to place the urban poor at the center of [Bahrain’s] modernization strategy.”

Bahrain’s human rights activists take a different view of the prime minister’s achievements in the field of housing. According to the independent Bahrain Center for Human Rights, the government’s housing budget has long failed to address the country’s serious housing crisis. Inside Bahrain, the prime minister is known more for his considerable personal financial stake in corporate skyscraper projects in the capital, Manama, than for providing adequate housing for Bahrain’s many low-income families.