The price we pay for being given facilities for our aircraft carriers in Bahrain became clear when the Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said in response to a question by Jeremy Corbyn in the Commons a few weeks ago that Bahrain is
“….travelling in the right direction. It is making significant reform. The crown prince who is charged with this agenda is directly engaged and has made significant progress over the last few months”.( House of Commons Official Report 20 Jan 2015 : Column 66)
This extraordinary statement was made on the same day that the world famous human rights activist Nabeel Rajab was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment for saying in a tweet that security institutions in Bahrain served as an ‘ideological incubator’ for jihadists’. Mr Rajab told the BBC that the laws and the judiciary were being used as tools of repression.
The day before the Foreign Secretary’s statement, the head of the country’s legal opposition al-Wefaq, Sheikh Ali Salman, was charged with promoting violent regime change, though as everybody including the Foreign Office knows,, Sheikh Ali and his party have been undeviating in their advocacy of peaceful change in the face of nation wide repression .
The UK, unlike other countries and the whole of the international human rights community, have never called for the release of political prisoners. We appeal for ‘due process’ in trials, when judges are appointed by the king and many of them are members of the al-Khalifa family, as was the case in the recent trial of Maryam al-Khawaja, co-Director of the Gulf Center for Human Rights, sentenced to a year’s imprisonment in absentia in December. We didn’t call for the release of Nabeel Rajab, or of the ‘Bahrain 13’, whose trials by a military court were condemned by the Bassiouni Commission; and we said not a word when the defendants were retried and convicted by a civil court using the same evidence, including confessions extracted by torture.
A week after the Foreign Secretary told the Commons about ‘significant reform’, the Bahraini Interior Ministry announced that under a law passed in July, 72 people were stripped of their citizenship by decree, with no nonsense about due process. Ten of them were alleged supporters of the Daesh, but al-Wefaq said most were opposition activists who supported ‘a democratic transition in Bahrain’. They included blogger Ali Abdulemam, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison in absentia for running an online news forum; Dr. Ali Al-Dairi, founder of the online news site Bahrain Mirror; journalist Abbas Busafwan; university professor Masoud Jahromi; and former opposition MP Shaikh Hasan Sultan.
The cases of Mr Sultan and of Jalal and Jawad Fairooz, also former opposition MPs, are being referred to the Committee on the Human Rights of Parliamentarians of the Inter-Parliamentary Union. This Committee will at least demand a full explanation of the reasons for these breaches of Parliamentary immunity which it will publish. The cases of other former MPs which I am not sure have yet been reported to the IPU are those of Khalil Al-Marzooq, former chairman of al Wefaq in Parliament; Osama Al-Tamimi,whose Parliamentary membership was arbitrarily revoked and access to his pension rights cancelled, and Matar Matar , who was arrested and tortured in 2011.
Foreign Office Ministers have repeatedly said that ‘inclusive and constructive political dialogue is the only way to promote peace and stability in Bahrain, a quote from their ‘Country case study’ on Bahrain published last April. We have just as consistently said the the so-called dialogue was bound to fail, because it didn’t include the street opposition, who call for replacement of the absolute monarchy by free elections leading to a people’s government. There can be no true political reform when advocacy of democracy and human rights is a crime.
So what can Mr Hammond say now? His policy of reform through dialogue in which a whole range of subjects is criminally out of order lies in ruins. There is nobody left for the al-Khalifas to dialogue with, and the £1.5 million the Foreign Office has spent on cosmetic reform is money down the drain. There is no sign that the regime’s widespread use of arbitrary detention and torture of opposition activists has been mitigated, and the visit by the UN Rapporteur on Torture is on indefinite hold. Human Rights Watch reports that:
“Analysis of court verdicts in the trials of the more than 200 people on terrorism or national security charges revealed the key role of Bahrain’s courts in maintaining the country’s highly repressive political order. Courts routinely sentence peaceful protesters to long prison terms, but members of the security forces are rarely prosecuted for unlawful killings, including in detention”.
The FCO has just released its much delayed response to the critical report by the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, rejecting the Committee’s recommendation that Bahrain should be listed as a ‘Country of Concern’ because it is on a path to reform. They say it is ‘making progress’ and is ‘on a trajectory of generally positive change’. The Government ‘are confident that real efforts are being made to address [human rights] issues’, and they ‘are providing a comprehensive package of technical and diplomatic assistance to support Bahrain’s reform programme’.
All there is to show for this package is the creation of a non-independent ombudsman and national rights institute, and human rights on the ground continue to deteriorate. As for political reform, the total grip of the al-Khalifas on power remains unrestricted; all platforms for free thinking and expression have been destroyed, and al-Wefaq, the only institution that had a mere right to exist as a nominal opposition has been decapitated and emasculated.
The people of Bahrain oppose the UK naval base and see it as a public declaration of the UK's "green light" for Bahrain to continue its tyranny and repression with impunity. Sooner or later there has to be regime change, and when that happens a new democratic government may not look on us with great affection.