The recent referendum organised by the revolutionary groups, and the bogus elections organised by the regime, which were boycotted by the political and street oppositions, confirm the deepening crisis in Bahrain. UK policy on Bahrain is controversial, it will be argued, especially the decision to construct a naval base there, and in the long run is contrary to the interests of both the UK and Bahrain.
December 17th, 2014
Lord Avebury, Vice-Chair of The Parliamentary Human Rights Group: As we meet today to commemorate the martyrs who have lost their lives in the long struggle for human rights and democracy in Bahrain, and particularly those killed in custody and on the streets since the uprising began in February 2011, we now see the disgraceful reason why the UK has soft-pedalled criticism of the al-Khalifa despotism.
Bahrain has agreed to construct a £15 million naval base for our aircraft carriers and destroyers, helping to silence us on extrajudicial killings; widespread detentions; denial of the rights to freedom of expression and assembly; the subservience of judges to political authority, and the deprivation of citizenship of those who dare to oppose the regime.
We ‘express concern’ over these matters but at the same time we show that we don’t really mean it. For instance, the Government rejected the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee that Bahrain should be designated a ‘country of concern’.
On the contrary, as the Economist pointed out last week, the Government wanted to ‘demonstrate Britain’s revived commitment to the Gulf monarchies, with whom it maintains substantial trading and investment relationships’.
On Human Rights Day last week the Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond called on governments around the world “to do more to foster the role of civil society in promoting and defending Human Rights”. Yet the founder of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights Abdulhadi al-Khawaja is serving a life sentence for promoting and defending human rights.
Nabeel Rajab, the current President of the BCHR, was imprisoned for three months for attacking the Formula 1 race in Bahrain; then spent two years in prison for peaceful protests, and is now awaiting a further trial on January 15 for a criticism of the government on Twitter.
On December 1 Maryam al-Khawaja, daughter of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and a prominent human rights activist herself, was arrested at Manama airport when she arrived to visit her father, who is seriously ill from a hunger strike. She spent 19 days in custody before being released on bail, and was given a year’s imprisonment in absentia when she jumped bail, pointing out that Bahrain’s judiciary is not independent.
Maryam’s elder sister Zainab, who had just given birth to her second child, was sentenced first to three years imprisonment on December 4 for insulting the king by tearing up his photograph, and then to another 16 months on December 9 – a year for insulting a public employee and an extra four months for damaging public property.
If this was North Korea you might believe it, but this is a country where the Foreign Office says
“there is evidence of real efforts being made in areas where human rights concerns remain”.
Our Chief Inspector of Prisons is engaged in a project to help establish and promote independent human rights based inspection of Bahraini custodial facilities, presumably because this is still an area of concern; but apparently he knows nothing about custodial deaths, such as that of Hassan Majeed al-Sheikh, who was beaten to death in Jaw prison on November 6.
Nor do we acknowledge that people are still being tortured, and that the visit by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez originally set for May 13, has been ‘effectively cancelled’, to use the Special Rapporteur’s own words. The regime has set up an Ombudsman, who has indeed asked for urgent action to address the problem of overcrowding in cells, with Jaw prison holding 1,608 prisoners at the time of inspection compared with its maximum intended capacity of 1201 only; but the cases of torture raised by victims, such as those in which Prince Nasser was allegedly involved, are said to be committed in locations other than prisons. Nor does the Ombudsman inquire into the many cases of citizens killed or seriously injured by security forces, such as Youssif Baddah who is in hospital after he was shot point blank by a tear gas canister at a demonstration against the murder of his son at an earlier demonstration.
The chairman of the legal opposition Party al-Wefaq, Khalil al Marzooq and others, met Ann Clwyd MP, chair of the Parliamentary Human Rights Group and other MPs on November 20, and he told them that UK Ministers had not met Al-Wefaq officials for more than two years. We understand that the Ambassador had met them, but not recently. The FCO was trying to persuade them to engage in the so-called ‘political dialogue’ and to participate in the elections. There was a severance of contacts in the run-up to the election, so al-Wefaq had no opportunity of explaining that as they saw it, participation would have been seen as legitimising the political and constitutional status quo.
After many months of stalemate in the negotiations, Human Rights Watch said that Bahrain wasn’t ready for dialogue when top US State Department official Tom Malinowski was expelled from the country. He sought to engage with members of the unofficial opposition, whose objective is to replace the absolutist monarchy by a government freely elected by the people, in accordance with Article 1 of the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Bahrain acceded in 2006. When this idea is not only taboo but to refer to it indirectly means a three year prison sentence, how can we pretend that dialogue is anything but a means of postponing the inevitable?
Sue Wellman, Human Rights Lawyer: For the past two or three years my life has been enriched by the privilege of meeting and collaborating with the people who are prepared to give up everything including their lives in the struggle for freedom in Bahrain. Thank you for inviting me.
In the words of Charles Dickens these are the best of times and the worst of times for Bahrain. The worst of times because as we have heard, those seeking to express their political opinions experience crimes of manslaughter and murder or crimes of assault and torture leading to their deaths.
And these crimes are perpetrated by the state, as is clearly documented by Professor Bassouini in a report commissioned by the King Of Bahrain. And in the absence of a free and fair court system, those crimes are not punished in Bahrain.
Which is where the UK comes in, and one of the reasons I was invited.
In 2012 around the time of the Olympics I was contacted by Bahrainis in the UK, mainly survivors of detention and torture who were shocked that PN of Bahrain who had been accused of torturing two of the Bahrain 13 was visiting the UK.
Sheikh Al Meqdad and Sheik L Mahroos was merrily visiting the UK- Olympics opening ceremony to events at Sandhurst and Windsor meeting the royal family. With help of Bahrain Centre for Human Rights and ECCHR we asked DPP to prosecute. They refused saying he was immune from prosecution. After a two year court battle DPP finally backed down.
There was a glorious moment in the High Court when LJ Laws spoke of torture and prince Nasser in the same breath in a court room packed with journalists and for a brief moment those Bahraini torture survivors in the room had a taste of what it might be like to end impunity. Since then we have written to police again asking for a meeting about new evidence They have brushed us off, but interestingly have referred the case to the Home Office to consider exclusion from UK.
We haven’t given up, we have written a second time pointing out errors in their letter and demanding a hearing. If that doesn’t work we may be back in court.
But the legal work on Bahrain doesn’t end there. Earlier this year the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development complained about South Korean Teargas imports.
There was a similar complaint re Formula One. And here is a date for your diary – on 9th Feb Bahrain Watch Activist Marc Jones FOI tribunal.
Its disheartening to see announcement re the base, shortly followed by suggestion this is sweetener for the UK to do another arms deal. But if UK is trading with Bahrain and supplying arms, we should consider if they have failed to follow the Overseas Security and Justice Guidance (using this in Sudan).
On one view this is “security assistance” to Bahrain. The primary role is projecting British military power for our own benefit, but that doesn’t exclude a collateral assistance to Bahrain. The SoS says it “will enable Britain to send more and larger ships to reinforce stability in the gulf”.
So there could be an interesting question whether the MoD has failed to apply its policy to this? So that’s why I say these are the best of times because as we can see here today, people of differing backgrounds have collaborated to put tiny Bahrain in the headlines.
We need to think creatively to challenge impunity. History tells us these things can take a long time. Look at Northern Ireland and South Africa. But by joining forces and using every legal strategy at our disposal, I feel confident that there will ultimately be justice for those we are here to remember today.