Bahrain is buying arms in London – and my family is paying the price

Although I live in exile in the UK, my Bahraini relatives have been arrested for my actions. We feel betrayed by the British government’s silences and doubletalk

Sayed Alwadaei

Next week the giant Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) arms fair returns to the Excel centre in east London. The protests have already started. As a Bahraini living in exile in Britain, I’ve previously joined them. I’m far from happy that Bahraini officials can pop over to London to do their weapons shopping when security forces are shooting peaceful protesters back in Bahrain.

Yet, as things stand I’m not sure how safe it will be for me or my family if I go to Docklands and hold up a protest placard. That’s because I’m one of a number of Bahrainis in the UK who are suffering reprisals whenever we put our heads above the parapet.

When the Bahraini king Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa visited the UK last October, I took part in a small street protest as his motorcade cruised into Downing Street. For this I was briefly arrested and released without charge. The next day, on 27 October, I got a 5am telephone call from my mother-in-law in Bahrain. She was sobbing down the line. “They’ve taken Duaa. They arrested her, and they took Yousif away too.” This was my wife and my 18-month-old son. About to board a plane back to Britain after a family visit, they’d been pulled aside at the departure lounge in Bahrain International airport. Security proceeded to intimidate my wife in a seven-hour interrogation. I was referred to as an “animal”, my wife was assaulted and it was made clear to her that she wouldn’t be leaving the country and might face criminal charges.

This seemed to me a clear reprisal after my protest on British soil just hours earlier. On this occasion, the Bahraini authorities backed down. My son is an American citizen and US diplomatic pressure combined with media coverage led to the authorities letting them out of the country a few days later.

But my family is still far from safe. In March, my wife’s mother, brother and cousin were all arrested. Again, the interrogation revolved around my activities in the UK. They were tortured into “confessing” their involvement in “planting fake bombs”. It’s a complete fabrication – I’m the real target. Unable to arrest me, they’ve targeted my extended family. I have relatives still in prison.

One would think this kind of behaviour would ring alarm bells in Britain. Shouldn’t the government be asking serious questions about all this? Isn’t intimidating a resident of Britain an outrage that flies in the face of British values of free speech and democracy? Apparently not if it means ruffling feathers in the Gulf.

A few weeks after my wife’s arrest, Theresa May’s visit to Bahrain focused solely on security and trade. Human rights were ignored. Similarly, the Foreign Office’s recent human rights report referred to a “mixed picture” in Bahrain, enormously downplayed the seriousness of the human rights crackdown still prevailing in the country, and generally did its utmost to accentuate supposed positives.

My family and I are not alone in feeling betrayed by the UK’s silences and doubletalk. When Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, was sentenced to two years in prison for giving media interviews, we watched as international condemnation of the silencing of a brave critic came in. The USA, Germany, Norway, the EU, the UN – all deplored the sentence and called for his release. But the UK stayed quiet. Weeks later, in response to a parliamentary question, a British minister merely said the UK had “noted” Rajab’s sentence.

Giving Bahrain a free pass on abuses has consequences. The country’s National Security Agency was granted law enforcement powers in January. Activist Ebtisam Al-Sayegh was arrested and charged under anti-terrorism laws for reporting the rape and torture of another activist by its agents. Meanwhile, military courts have been empowered to prosecute civilians, torture victims have been executed, and five protesters were killed in a single day in May. The last major opposition party has also been dissolved and Bahrain’s only independent newspaper was forced to close in June.

Amnesty International has recorded “disastrous decline” in human rights in the country over the past year. But no matter – the UK is invested in a story of a “reformist” Bahrain. Since 2012, the UK has spent more than £5m on public order training for Bahrain’s security forces and on advice over supposed accountability institutions. The results are tragically perverse: Bahrain’s abusers have been emboldened while the government-to-government contact has been presented by Manama’s well-oiled PR machine as evidence of “reform”.

The UK’s unethical position on Bahrain is part and parcel of a wider, post-Brexit UK policy on the wealthy Gulf dictatorships. Why else would it also cosy up to rich but repressive Saudi Arabia, selling billions’ worth of arms despite the carnage this is creating in Yemen?

Five years ago, I fled Bahrain after being arrested, tortured and prosecuted for speaking to journalists during the Arab spring. My campaigning work on human rights and democracy are anathema to the Bahraini authorities and I’ve been stripped of my citizenship and rendered stateless. I expected smears and reprisals against myself, but not my family.

I’m still thinking of joining fellow protesters outside the DSEI arms fair. After all, the UK is a democracy and this right to peacefully protest is one of the things I most cherish about my new home. But isn’t it time the UK government stopped looking the other way when so-called friends in the Gulf target people for peacefully protesting in the heart of our own capital city?

Sayed Alwadaei is the director of advocacy at Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy in London

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