Today we held very successful seminar on the political and human rights crises in Bahrain at Millbank House, a Parliamentary annex. Our regular guest Dr Abdul Jalil Al-Singace wasn’t able to attend because he is one of the main defendants in the show trial, but he sent us an excellent video statement. We also had a video statement from Maitham Al-Sheikh, who was severely tortured during his 15 months in prison and had to be released for urgent hospital treatment. Then we had a short account of the March 25 court proceedings from Dr David Gottlieb of the Islamic Human Rights Commission; an analysis of the origins of the present crisis by Dr Saeed Shehabi, and comments on the role of women in the popular uprising by Zainab Meftah. There was a general discussion, and it was agreed that we would urge the Czech EU Presidency to commission an observer to attend the adjourned court proceedings on April 28, and that we would contact the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Manfred Nowak, asking him to investigate the many allegations of torture made by detainees.
My introductory remarks:
The Paradoxes of the Kingdom of Silence
This is an unhappy time for the Kingdom of Silence we are here to discuss, and there is also silence in the western media about the escalating crisis in Bahrain. There is negative feedback between the harsh and repressive acts of the authorities, and the growing resistance of ordinary people on the streets. More people including many schoolchildren are being injured by the security forces and foreign mercenaries, and we have photographs of their injuries. More people are being detained, and many of those detained are being tortured, including the victims of the show trial of 35 who are accused of acts of terror.. The main defendant Mr Hassan Mushaima has been a frequent attendant at our previous seminars, and we strongly believe the trial is an attempt to stop him engaging in political activities. The Haq movement, of which he is leader, is the main
opposition to the regime, and makes no secret of the fact that it wants constitutional reform to replace the absolute monarchy by a democratic system with a genuine Parliament, independent courts of law, freedom of expression, and an end to the demographic engineering exposed by Dr Salah al-Bandar three years ago.
For upholding principles that we say we support all over the world, Mr Mushaima, and our other good friend Abdujalil al-Singace, also a regular guest here, face a trial which has been severely criticised by Human Rights Watch, and I'll come onto that in a minute. But first I want to tell you about a message I had from Dr Singace yesterday, which he was able to send as the only one of the 22 arrested who was granted bail.A friend of his, a professor from the Hoover Institution, a well-known think tank which is part of Stanford University in the US was on a cruise ship that called in at Manama, and he invited Dr Al-Singace to lunch on board the ship with him and his academic colleagues.
When Dr Al-Singace presented himself at the port, officials first said they needed an instruction in writing from the ship's captain or the travel agents to allow him on board. The travel agent then arrived, with a list of visitors that included the name of Dr Al-Singace. But he was still detained by port officals in a security room for an hour and a half, until a senior government official turned up, to announce that the Foreign Ministry had issued an instruction giving permission for only three persons to board the ship and speak to the travellers. These were a member of the ruling family who is an assistant under-secretary of the Foreign Ministry; a Mrs Allison Samaan, Deputy Head of the Shura Council, and Dr Mansoor alJamri, editor-in-chief of Al-Wasat newspaper, tolerated by the government because he knows what not to say on sensitive topics.
The American professor was dismayed, that his idea of asking Dr Al-Singace to speak to the visiting academics was hijacked by the regime, and turned into a circus to polish their image. The professor learned, by hints dropped in his discussions with officials, that Dr Al-Singace was not to be allowed to speak to the visitors for political reasons, but none of
them had the guts to come out and say so plainly. So finally, the professor gave up the idea of having lunch on board as had been agreed with the tour organisers and the ship's agent and decided to come on shore for lunch with Dr Al-Singace. As they were leaving the port area together, they came face to face with Mr Al-Khalifa, who was being greeted with kisses on the nose by port officials, and Ms Samaan, who were waiting to be escorted in their Mercedes to regale the Americans with a fairy story about the 'democracy, transparency and openness' enjoyed by citizens of Bahrain.
Now to return to reality. At the end of last year, the state-controlled TV screened a group of young opposition activists who had been held incommunicado for 11 days confessing to acts of violence at a Haq rally. They said that Mr Mushaima had told them to do this, as part of a plot to overthrow the government, but when they first came to court on February 23, their lawyer said they had been tortured. They said they had been beaten with water hoses on their feet, and given electric shocks, especially on their genitals, and I have asked her whether she has submitted a formal complaint to the UN Rapporteur on Torture, Manfred Nowak.
At the last hearing on March 25, the court unprecedentedly agreed to reinvestigate the case, to order an end to the solitary confinement of the defendants, and to appoint a medical committee to investigate the torture allegations. The presence in the court of representatives of the EU Presidency, as well as numerous human rights NGOs such as Human Rights Watch and the Islamic Human Rights Commission, may have had some bearing on this outcome, and I suggest this meeting ask the EU Presidency to attend the resumed hearing on April 28.
But this trial, though it is indeed an iniquitous act of persecution against those who stand up for human rights in Bahrain, is only one aspect of the increasing ruthlessness of the hereditary dictatorship. Seeing that the population has lost patience waiting for the reforms that never came after a controlled Parliament with no real power was established, the al-Khalifas have clamped down on every expression of dissent, using violence on the streets, blocking access to human rights websites, and spying on members of the opposition.
Even the US, Bahrain's staunch ally, has to criticise the regime in the State Department's report on human rights. They say that in 2008
“Citizens did not have the right to change their government The government restricted civil liberties, including freedoms of press, speech, assembly, association and some religious practices. Domestic violence against women persisted, as did discrimination on the basis of gender, religion, nationality, and sect, particularly against the Shia majority
Yesterday the Washington-based Committee to Protect Journalists wrote to the King protesting against the recent deterioration of press freedom in Bahrain and the government's ongoing campaign against critical or opposition Web sites and blogs. The crackdown against those sites has resulted in dozens of them being blocked inside the kingdom, including the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.
The State Department report had already detailed mass arrests of demonstrators and their allegations of torture from the whole of last year, and defects in the court system now glaringly apparent to the whole world. The king appoints all judges by royal decree, and he is chairman of the Supreme Judicial Council which supervises the work of the courts
and public prosecutors. There is no right of access by defendants to evidence held by the government.
What can we do to persuade our own Government to be as plain as that, instead of being so careful to avoid commenting on human rights violations in Bahrain, as they have been ever since the Parliamentary Human Rights Group first took up the problems in January 1994? In 1996 we published our correspondence with Foreign Office Ministers under the
title A Brick Wall, and you would have to look at that compilation to see how Ministers evaded expressing any opinion on the disastrous violations of human rights over those years. But when Labour came to power in 1997, it can't be said there was any change of attitude.
When Sheikh Hamad succeeded as ruler, there may have been some temporary grounds for hope of genuine reforms, but it soon turned out that what the ruling family was after was an imitation democracy, with the real power kept in the hands of the king, his uncle, the longest serving Prime Minister in the world, and the rest of the al-Khalifa family, who get appointed to nearly all the highest offices. But the Foreign Office resolutely ignores both the fact that Bahrain continues to be a hereditary dictatorship, and the unscrupulous methods used by the regime to sustain itself in power. Their annual report on human rights for 2008, unlike the State Department's, contains not a word about unlawful detention or torture, or the severe discrimination against the Shi'a.
We shouldn't ever give up on trying to persuade Whitehall to adopt a more robust attitude to the crimes of the al-Khalifas against their own people, but at the same time perhaps we need to concentrate more on Brussels, with the Czech Presidency of the EU at least having an observer at the trial. And the European Parliament has just passed a resolution
calling for the proclamation of 23 August as a Europe-wide Remembrance Day for the victims of all totalitarian and authoritarian regimes.
With the European elections coming up in June, why don't we send a briefing to all the candidates here in the UK on the situation in Bahrain? They could ask the High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, Javier Solana, to issue a statement on the administration of justice in Bahrain, and more widely on the causes of unrest. The tension between the royal family, terrified of losing one iota of their power, and the people, frustrated by their total exclusion from policy-making, can only lead to instability in a key state of the region, and that must surely be of great concern to Europe.
Finally, we need to activate the UN Human Rights Council Special Procedures, which could play a larger role in highlighting what's going on now. The Working Group on Arbitrary Detention visited the country 8 years ago, shortly after the government had repealed the emergency legislation which had been used to keep opposition leaders in custody for years in the 90s. Now that people are being detained under fabricated
charges, its time for the Working Group to take another look. The Special Rapporteur on Torture, who has never been to Bahrain, should be seeking an invitation. The Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers has an obvious interest in the current situation, as does the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders. Above all, the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief, Ms Asma Jehangir, should investigate the systematic discrimination against the Shi'a, mentioned by the US State Department.
Let us send a message of solidarity to our brothers Hassan Mushaima, Abdul Jalil Al Singace, and all other victims of the regime's persecution. Lets resolve to step up the campaign to protect all the people of Bahrain against the merciless onslaught by the hereditary dictatorship, and to mobilise the international human rights process in their defence.