Saturday, December 20, 2008

Curious refusal of visa to human rights activist

Statement by Lord Avebury on the refusal of visa to Mr al-Maskati, President of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, to attend a seminar on human rights and democracy in Bahrain, helf under my chairmanship in the House of Lords on Thursday December 18.

On December 14 I learned that Mr al-Maskati had been told more than once by the British Consulate in Manama that his application for a visa to attend and speak at the seminar being held under my chairmanship at the House of Lords on December 18 was still being processed, and since there were only a few days left for him to make his travel arrangements I emailed a senior official in the Consulate as follows:

May I please ask for your help with the application for a visa by Mr Mohammed al-Masqati of Bahrain Youth for Human Rights, who is an invited speaker at a seminar on Bahrain that I'm chairing in the Moses Room, House of Lords, on Thursday? He has attended the Consulate but has been told that his application is still under consideration, and I'm getting anxious, as tomorrow is the last working day in Manama before our seminar.

If you would kindly email me in the morning, I hope to say that the visa is being granted, it would be helpful.

On receiving an automatic ‘Out of office’ reply saying the official would be away until December 29 and giving an alternate email address, I forwarded the original email to the suggested address with a covering note as follows:

I had an 'out of office' reply to this email, and since the matter is indeed urgent, I would be grateful if you would email me in the morning.

On the morning of December 15, having had no answer, I telephoned the Consulate, and the official I spoke to on referring to their computer database of visa applications, told me that no trace could be found of an application under either ‘al-Maskati’ or ‘al-Masqati’.

I telephoned the office of the Minister who deals with these matters, and they referred me to the ‘MPs’ hotline’, and after several attempts to contact thus number, only to receive an answerphone message, when I finally got through I was asked to provide Mr al-Maskati’s passport number. I emailed the official at midday of December 15 as follows:

Details of applicant:

Mohamed Abdulnabi Ebrahim Ali Al-Maskati, Bahraini Passport No: ******* (details withheld for reasons of confidentiality)

This gentleman has been invited for a short visit so that he can speak at a seminar I'm chairing on the morning of Thursday this week.

These seminars have been held regularly every six months for many years, and none of our invited speakers has ever infringed the immigration rules to the best of my knowledge.

Its a public holiday in Manama tomorrow, but I very much hope that the UKBA can make up their minds to grant Mr al-Maskati a visa in time for Wednesday first thing, which I hope would enable him to book a last minute flight.

The following day, December 16, the official emailed me:

Just to keep you updated on Mr Al-Maskati's visa application, this application has been referred, and is being currently being looked into.

The words ‘has been referred’ meant that the Consulate in Manama had referred the application to the UK Borders Agency in London. I replied:

Thanks for that. But if he doesn't get the visa tomorrow, he will miss our seminar on Thursday, which I must say would be a great disappointment.

On Wednesday, December 17 the official emailed me:

While I can't pre-empt any final decision, I did want to update you that it does look likely that Mr Al-Maskati's application may be refused.

At that point it was already too late for Mr al-Maskati to make travel arrangements even if the application had been granted.

Although it would have added greatly to the analysis of the situation of human rights and democracy in Bahrain if the seminar could have heard from the President of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, his absence underlined what I said in my own speech about the attempts to silence Bahraini activists speaking at meetings abroad:

“When three prominent human rights activists spoke at a meeting in Washington DC about the exclusion of Shi’a from higher education and public sector jobs, they were branded as ‘traitors’ and ‘stooges of the Unuted States’ on returning to Bahrain, and the Interior Minister, one more al-Khalifa, called for the enforcement of Article 34 of the Penal Code, which provides that a person who criticises Bahrain abroad is liable to three months imprisonment and a fine. I wrote to the Foreign Office Minister who deals with Bahrain, Bill Rammell MP, and he said our Ambassador was seeking a call on the Interior Minister to discuss his Article 34 demand, and also the wider issues of Bahrainis speaking at conferences abroad”.

We will make arrangements to receive a note of the speech Mr al-Maskati would have delivered, for inclusion in the report on the proceedings of the seminar, and we will make further inquiries with Foreign Office Ministers about the reasons why the application was referred to London, and why it was refused.

No comments: