Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Opening remarks by Lord Avebury, vice-chair, Parliamentary Human Rights Group, at a seminar on Bahrain in No 2 Millbank Parliamentary Annexe, at 12.00

At the end of last year we were looking at five years of lost opportunities in Bahrain, following the accession of the present ruler on the death of his father. The signs had been good, with the abolition of the state security courts, the amnesty for political detainees, the ending of torture and the return of the exiles; but as we said then, the process of reform leading towards a liberal constitutional monarchy had gone into reverse.

Unfortunately, the eight months since then have witnessed further departures from the norms of human rights, good governance and the rule of law, which this meeting has to address. A week ago a delegation of human rights activists from Bahrain presented a petition signed by 82,000 citizens, one in every 8 of the adult population, to the UN Secretary-General, asking the international body to aid them in determining their political future, and in particular in getting a constitution to replace the one foisted on them by the present ruler in a three-card trick. In May 2001 the people voted for the National Charter in a referendum, but were then given a different solution which allowed them to vote for an emasculated Parliament, a pale imitation of democracy, entrenching the powers of the ruler and his family.

Meanwhile, arbitrary arrests and detention continue, long sentences are passed on activists for political offences, and repressive laws are enacted. The office of the US-based National Democratic Institute was closed down in May and its director, Fawzi Julid was expelled. The Bahrain Centre for Human Rights was banned, although it continues to operate unofficially. The President of the Popular Committee for Martyrs and Torture Victims, Abdul Ra’oof al Shayeb, was arrested and ill-treated in April – and that Committee also exists outside the law. He has since been jailed for a year on trumped-up charges, following his attendance at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Discrimination against the Shi’a majority has attracted adverse comment from the respected International Crisis Group in a report entitled Bahrain’s Sectarian Challenge, which called for an end to the manipulation of the country’s demographic makeup through political naturalisation of foreigners and extension of voting rights to citizens of Saudi Arabia, a matter on which evidence has been heard at our previous seminars. They called on the government of the US – and they should have extended this recommendation to the UK as well – to restore legislative authority to the elected branch of the parliament in accordance with the short-lived 1973 constitution, to end ant-Shi’a discrimination and to redraw electoral boundaries so as to fairly reflect the country’s population. The response of the prime minister of Bahrain, within two weeks of this report, was to issue a decree appointing 56 extra Sunnis to posts in the Ministry of the Interior.

Human Rights Watch has also weighed in recently with a letter to King Hamad about the draft law on public meetings and demonstrations, which they claimed would undermine the right of peaceful assembly contained in Article 21 of the ICCPR, said to be on the agenda for ratification by Bahrain since May 2005. Even before this proposal, there were already severe restrictions on meetings and demonstrations, and the police have been known to attack demonstrators, even when they had been properly notified of an event. In July hooded security men arrested Abbas Abd Ali from Ekr in the district of Sitra after he took part in a peaceful demonstration at al-Dana Mall in Manama, and beat him till he became unconscious and had to be hospitalised. The previous month, the government had banned all demonstrations to mark the International Day against Torture.

Last week the trial of 19 young men who were arrested on March 10 after a demo outside the Dana Shopping Mall, including four minors, was further adjourned. Amongst the detainees is a speaker from our last seminar. The youngsters protested about the long delay, which looks like punishment before sentence, and were beaten up for their pains. Relatives have reported that they suffered various injuries, and are now on hunger strike. I asked Amnesty International on Monday why they hadn’t issued an Urgent Action on behalf of these detainees, and was told they were awaiting the court hearing. Since it has now been deferred without a new date being set, I hope they will now issue a statement.

Another young man who took part in a peaceful demonstration at the airport was sentenced to two years imprisonment in early May. So even without the new law, the treatment of activists and demonstrators would already be in breach of the Covenant if they had signed it. The FCO Minister who deals with Bahrain, Dr Kim Howells MP, told me 6 weeks ago that he hoped to see movement on Bahrain’s signature and ratification soon, but it would be an act of gross hypocrisy if they signed while continuing to arrest and ill-treat peaceful demonstrators, and to prepare even more draconian laws against freedom of assembly.

In my letter to the Minister, I had said that if there had been a functioning civil society in Bahrain, one would have expected the Law on Public Demonstrations discussed, and in particular for there to have been a lively debate in Parliament itself. His puzzling response was that civil society was strengthening, and that it would take time for Bahrain to develop democratic institutions. The Government’s contribution to this process is to spend £191,000 on three projects concerned with enhancing the capacity of the Parliament, supporting the capacity of the Youth Parliament, and empowering lower caste women activists so that in the long run they may become parliamentary candidates. But if the Youth Parliament and the women are hand-picked by the al-Khalifa, or are vetted to make sure they don’t say the wrong thing, that will gold plate the façade which is presented to the outside world and bolster the pretence that progress is being made.

Meanwhile, the King arrived here for a private visit, and the Friday before last the London traffic was stopped so that he and 70 of his cronies could get to the Dorchester for lunch, escorted by two police Range Rovers and six motorcycle outriders. A journalist who was making inquiries about the cost of the operation was questioned by two Special Branch detectives. The Foreign Office say that security for visiting heads of state is a matter for the police, but its funny that when President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, a country with 40 times as many people and ten times the GNP of Bahrain, was here in May, there wasn’t a copper in sight. The Met knows what the party line is on these occasions without being told.

The British - and Americans too – ignore the fact that Bahrain is already in breach of her obligations under the Convention Against Torture, as the Committee Against Torture decided when it considered Bahrain’s first report in May 2005. They say nothing about the need to repeal the decree which exonerated the torturers including the notorious Ian Henderson, a British citizen who was in charge of the security apparatus for many years.

I don’t expect them to make any public comment, either, on the Counter-Terrorism Bill, which passed through both Houses of the docile Parliament, apparently without criticism, and is awaiting final ratification by the King. This Bill defines terrorism even more broadly than our Act of 2000, including ‘threatening national unity’, and providing accommodation or subsistence to persons who are convicted later on charges of terrorism. It implies that any organisation opposed to the Bahraini constitution is terrorist, and allows the courts to impose the death penalty for acts of terrorism. This Bill has attracted criticism from the UN Rapporteur on the protection of human rights while countering terrorism, but not from the Foreign Office, which nevertheless claims that one of its priorities for 2006 is ‘ensuring that the fight against terrorism is taken forward in a way which is consistent with international human rights standards’.

One last point: we have discussed at previous seminars the attempts by the al-Khalifas to restrict critical websites, through control of the monopoly internet provider, Batelco. They have now denied local users access to Google Earth, a program that enables users to zoom in and see details of secret construction works in the territory such as berths for the yachts of the ruling family and their cronies. This may sound pretty trivial compared with the ruling family’s major defects that we’re here to discuss, but it shows how they treat the whole state as their personal property, yet at the same time they are terrified that the people will get to know what they’re doing. It must be the task of all friends of Bahrain to ensure that the people get that information. King Hamad will discover, like King Canute did 1,000 years ago, that he can’t stop the tide coming in. This time, it will be information, not seawater, and with it the information tide will bring true freedom.

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