Saturday, August 25, 2007

Remarks from the chair at Bahrain seminar, Millbank, August 23

As we have noted before, the al-Khalifa family remain firmly in control of the land and wealth of the state; the people have no power to change the government, and the constitution handed down from on high by the ruler, which was substituted for a scheme approved in a referendum, has proved to be a dead end. The ruler, though acknowledging that democracy means continuous change in consultation with the people, has no programme of reform, and no intention of engaging in dialogue with all sections of society including the poor, the victims of torture, and human rights activists.

Just a few weeks ago, the British citizen who was in charge of the security apparatus during the previous ruler’s time, came here for medical treatment, after obtaining as assurance that he wouldn’t be arrested or questioned while here for the many acts of torture said to have been committed. We do understand the difficulty of collecting evidence that will allow Mr Henderson to be prosecuted with a reasonable likelihood of obtaining a conviction, but there are 14 victims ready to testify to their own sufferings, to say nothing of the bereaved families of those who died under torture: I wrote to the Foreign Office about many of these victims at the time: in 1995, for instance, Husein Qambar died under torture on January 4, Hamid Qasim, age 17 on or before March 26 when the police delivered his mutilated body to the family. The person who took the photographs of Hamid’s body in the morgue had to remain anonymous for his own safety. Our Embassy in Manama, to whom I sent a copy of a photograph taken by the family, said they believed his injuries may have been caused by rubber bullets, but I have never heard of rubber bullets severing a person’s fingers. Another boy who died under torture that year was Saeed Abdul Rasool al-Eskafy age 16, whose mutilated body was handed back to his family on July 8. These and many other cases were reported to Ministers at the time, together with the allegation that Mr Henderson, knew about the atrocities happening under his command as everyone else did in Bahrain.

The present regime may not be responsible for the heinous tortures committed towards the end of the last century, but Henderson is an honoured resident of Manama and until recently appeared on great occasions there. Not only has there been no attempt to bring him and his lieutenant Adel Flaifel to justice in Bahrain, but all those who were involved in the torture apparatus have been given an indemnity from prosecution. Bahrain signed up to the Convention against Torture but made sure that its own torturers would escape justice, violating the Convention before the ink was dry on their signature.

Granted, these days the persecution of dissidents, trade unionists and human rights activists is not so extreme, but those who speak out about the grievances of the people are still targeted for violent acts and threats. Nabil Rajab, head of the Centre for Human Rights, was deliberately attacked by the police along with a few others last month when he was about to participate in a march for the unemployed. The police knew who he was, and picked on him, kicking and beating him so that he had to be taken to hospital with back injuries. In June, Human Rights Watch protested to the ruler about the injuries inflicted by the police on two men arrested at a peaceful demonstration. One suffered trauma to his face and head, the other a broken jaw among other injuries after being severely beaten up. At the end of July the BBC’s Crossing Continents programme reported from Bahrain on further demonstrations being attacked by riot police with tear gas, truncheons and rubber bullets.
Some of the causes of the frustration and discontent were identified by the BBC. In spite of the enormous wealth generated by Bahrain’s oil, the villages inhabited by the Shi’a majority are painfully down at heel and a high proportion of their inhabitants are unemployed, contrasting sharply with the luxury palaces of the Sunni elite. And some of the poor villagers who lived along the coast have been dispossessed of even what they had, as the ruling family seize land on the coast for new development or private marinas. In a rare concession, the ruler, now in London cabled an order yesterday to his cousin Sheik Hamad bin Mohammed Salman al-Khalifa to dismantle a concrete wall he had built two years ago blocking access to the coastline and installed a series of nets to prevent fishing in nearby waters, provoking demonstrations by the villagers of al-Malkiyah, some 12 kilometers (7 miles) west of the capital Manama. But in law, the whole of the coast belongs to the ruler, and the al-Khalifas are generating huge profits for themselves by reclaiming shallow waters for development. This money doesn’t appear in the state accounts, and questions are never asked about it in the tame parliament. Nor do they inquire about the huge sums appropriated from oil and gas revenues. The Economist Intelligence Unit says that Bahrain’s output of refined products is 270,000 barrels a day. At an average price of $60 a barrel, not counting the added value of refining, this comes to nearly $6 billion. Add to that the profits from the aluminium smelter, Bahrain Telecoms, central bank profits and revenues of other public assets, and the income dwarfs the average budgeted expenditure of the state of $4.9 billion. A few billions have to be siphoned off to fund the royal courts and other unreported extra-budgetary expenses, such as the coastal developments which could be seen on Google Earth until the local ISP blocked the images of palaces, and the island of Jiddah, formerly a prison but now developed as a private holiday estate of the Prime Minister.
Last year also Bahrain expelled a British citizen, Dr Salah al-Bandar, who blew the whistle on a huge machine of corruption and illegality run by Sheikh Attiyatallah al-Khalifa, the head of the Central Intelligence Organisation. Dr al-Bandar presented his report to the ruler and other members of the government, but their response was to vilify him and falsely charge him with serious offences, without responding to any of the detailed evidence he presented.
Bahrain seldom makes the headlines in Britain, and when it does get into the news, it is as a valued ally and a pillar of stability in the Gulf region. If the UK really wants to foster a long term relationship with Bahrain, we must be more active in defending the rights of democrats and victims of al-Khalifa repression. The future lies with the people, and not with the kleptocrats who rule Bahrain today.

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