My introductory remarks as vice-chair of the Parliamentary Human Rights Group at a press conference on Bahrain, Committee Room G, 11.45 December 17, 2014
As we meet today to commemorate the martyrs who have lost their lives in the long struggle for human rights and democracy in Bahrain, and particularly those killed in custody and on the streets since the uprising began in February 2011, we now see the disgraceful reason why the UK has soft-pedalled criticism of the al-Khalifa despotism.
Bahrain has agreed to construct a £15 million naval base for our aircraft carriers and destroyers, helping to silence us on extrajudicial killings; widespread detentions; denial of the rights to freedom of expression and assembly; the subservience of judges to political authority, and the deprivation of citizenship of those who dare to oppose the regime.
We ‘express concern’ over these matters but at the same time we show that we don’t really mean it. For instance, the Government rejected the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee that Bahrain should be designated a ‘country of concern’.
On the contrary, as the Economist pointed out last week, the Government wanted to ‘demonstrate Britain’s revived commitment to the Gulf monarchies, with whom it maintains substantial trading and investment relationships’.
On Human Rights Day last week the Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond called on governments around the world “to do more to foster the role of civil society in promoting and defending Human Rights”. Yet the founder of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights Abdulhadi al-Khawaja is serving a life sentence for promoting and defending human rights.
Nabeel Rajab, the current President of the BCHR, was imprisoned for three months for attacking the Formula 1 race in Bahrain; then spent two years in prison for peaceful protests, and is now awaiting a further trial on January 15 for a criticism of the government on Twitter.
On December 1 Maryam al-Khawaja, daughter of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and a prominent human rights activist herself, was arrested at Manama airport when she arrived to visit her father, who is seriously ill from a hunger strike. She spent 19 days in custody before being released on bail, and was given a year’s imprisonment in absentia when she jumped bail, pointing out that Bahrain’s judiciary is not independent.
Maryam’s elder sister Zainab, who had just given birth to her second child, was sentenced first to three years imprisonment on December 4 for insulting the king by tearing up his photograph, and then to another 16 months on December 9 – a year for insulting a public employee and an extra four months for damaging public property.
If this was North Korea you might believe it, but this is a country where the Foreign Office says
“there is evidence of real efforts being made in areas where human rights concerns remain”.
Our Chief Inspector of Prisons is engaged in a project to help establish and promote independent human rights based inspection of Bahraini custodial facilities, presumably because this is still an area of concern; but apparently he knows nothing about custodial deaths, such as that of Hassan Majeed al-Sheikh, who was beaten to death in Jaw prison on November 6.
Nor do we acknowledge that people are still being tortured, and that the visit by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez originally set for May 13, has been ‘effectively cancelled’, to use the Special Rapporteur’s own words. The regime has set up an Ombudsman, who has indeed asked for urgent action to address the problem of overcrowding in cells, with Jaw prison holding 1,608 prisoners at the time of inspection compared with its maximum intended capacity of 1201 only; but the cases of torture raised by victims, such as those in which Prince Nasser was allegedly involved, are said to be committed in locations other than prisons. Nor does the Ombudsman inquire into the many cases of citizens killed or seriously injured by security forces, such as Youssif Baddah who is in hospital after he was shot point blank by a tear gas canister at a demonstration against the murder of his son at an earlier demonstration.
The chairman of the legal opposition Party al-Wefaq, Khalil al Marzooq and others, met Ann Clwyd MP, chair of the Parliamentary Human Rights Group and other MPs on November 20, and he told them that UK Ministers had not met Al-Wefaq officials for more than two years. We understand that the Ambassador had met them, but not recently. The FCO was trying to persuade them to engage in the so-called ‘political dialogue’ and to participate in the elections. There was a severance of contacts in the run-up to the election, so al-Wefaq had no opportunity of explaining that as they saw it, participation would have been seen as legitimising the political and constitutional status quo.
After many months of stalemate in the negotiations, Human Rights Watch said that Bahrain wasn’t ready for dialogue when top US State Department official Tom Malinowski was expelled from the country. He sought to engage with members of the unofficial opposition, whose objective is to replace the absolutist monarchy by a government freely elected by the people, in accordance with Article 1 of the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Bahrain acceded in 2006. When this idea is not only taboo but to refer to it indirectly means a three year prison sentence, how can we pretend that dialogue is anything but a means of postponing the inevitable?