Video report see http://youtu.be/BRocAFVaCjY
My introductory remarks:
This press conference is being held to mark the fourth anniversary of the Saudi military intervention to help put down the uprising against the al-Khalifa autocracy that began in February 2011.
Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian feminist who lived in Saudi Arabia for six years between the ages of 7 and 15, condemns the hypocrisy of world leaders who flocked to pay their respects after the Saudi King Abdullah died in January. The Independent on Sunday reported her as saying
“I am horrified by the moral ambiguity that develops when a dictator dies”.
She says that Saudi Arabia is a “black hole of misogyny” that operates a system of “gender apartheid”, and that human rights abuses in the kingdom are ignored because of oil and because they spend billions of dollars on weapons.
She argues that if you want to cosy up to an ally, to do a business deal or to sell them weapons, say you will turn a blind eye to women’s rights and you will get what you want.
Saudi Arabia, unlike Bahrain, is listed as a Country of Concern by the Foreign Office. Their report is said to have been updated in January 2015, but the text refers entirely to events that happened in 2013 such as the expulsion of 150,000 unregistered migrant workers. There is no mention, for example, of the sentence of 10,000 lashes, a fine of $266,000, and ten years imprisonment passed on the writer Rauf Badawi in May 2014 for an article he published criticising the Saudi clerical establishment on his Free Saudi Liberals website.
Amnesty International reports that in 2014, the government severely restricted freedoms of expression, association and assembly, and cracked down on dissent, arresting and imprisoning critics, including human rights defenders. Many received unfair trials before courts that failed to respect due process, including a special anti-terrorism court that handed down death sentences. New legislation effectively equated criticism of the government and other peaceful activities with terrorism. The authorities clamped down on online activism and intimidated activists and family members who reported human rights violations. Discrimination against the Shi’a minority remained entrenched; some Shi’a activists were sentenced to death and scores received lengthy prison terms. Torture of detainees was reportedly common; courts convicted defendants on the basis of torture-tainted “confessions” and sentenced others to flogging. Women faced discrimination in law and practice, and were inadequately protected against sexual and other violence despite a new law criminalizing domestic violence. The authorities continued to detain and summarily expel thousands of foreign migrants, returning some to countries where they were at risk of serious human rights abuses.
Cornell University’s death penalty database records that the Saudis executed at least 87 people in 2014, and so far this year at least another 39.
Not a word of all this appears on the FCO website.
US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Saudi Arabia a week ago, but the US, like Britain, has been largely silent about executions and other gross and persistent human rights violations carried out by the Saudi autocrats.
Mr Kerry wasn’t in Riyadh to discuss human rights, but to reassure Prince Saud al-Faisal, the world’s longest serving foreign minister and son of the late King Faisal that the US administration “was not pursuing a broader rapprochement with Iran that could come at the expense of its Arab rivals. “ (now where have we heard of a similar case of a record-breaking minister closely related to a monarch ).
It must be apparent, though, to Mr Kerry and Prince Saud that Iranian intervention in the military operation to clear the Daesh out of Tikrit, and later probably out of Mosul as well, helps enormously to accelerate the eradication of the terrorists from Iraq and Syria, and hence to eliminate the attraction of the so-called ‘caliphate’ to jihadists from all over the world, as well as its medium term threat to the whole region.
Returning to the Saudi intervention in Bahrain, the intention is clearly to help fellow hereditary autocrats to counter and extinguish the popular uprising that began four years ago and continues today. The al-Khalifas have no doubt learned some lessons from their Saudi big brothers about how to deal with bloggers, human rights defenders and peaceful opponents like Nabeel Rajab, President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and holder of awards from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the Silbury Fund and Index on Censorship.. His appeal against a six month prison sentence for “denigrating government institutions” is being heard this coming Sunday, and he is facing a new charge of ‘inciting hatred against the regime’, which carries a three year prison sentence. These legal attacks on freedom of expression may well have been inspired by the Saudis, who enacted a law in February 2014 equating acts deemed to “undermine” or “destabilize” the state or society could with terrorism.
Nabeel’s plight, as well as the charges against Maryam and Zainab al –Khawaja, are ignored in the FCO Report mentioned earlier, and incidentally, we should note that as International Women’s Day was celebrated earlier this week, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights highlights the cases of 6 women activists out of the 300 who have been arrested, imprisoned, and tortured on false charges ranging from misuse of social media to harbouring fugitives to plotting terrorist attacks. We might suggest to the International Bar Association that they undertake a comparison of the laws criminalising the right to criticise the monarch or the government in Gulf states.
Saudi Arabia’s ideology includes the doctrine that Wahabi Islam should have a monopoly of religious life in the kingdom, so Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism and every other world religion is prohibited. But since they can’t get rid of the one in five of their population who are Shia, they can only do their best to discourage and discriminate against their Shia subjects. The close alliance with Bahrain is based on that principle. Yesterday a new report on discrimination against the Shia in Bahrain was published by a consortium of human rights NGOs detailing the legal actions against Shia religious groups; the destruction of their mosques, and violence against their clergy.
Because the population of Bahrain is much smaller, however, its rulers think the problem can be solved by demographic engineering. Immigration of Sunnis from Jordan, Yemen and Pakistan is encouraged and the immigrants are given citizenship, housing and jobs, frequently in the security forces. Shia citizens are excluded from the public services, denied the rights of freedom of expression and assembly, subjected to arbitrary arrest, torture, extrajudicial execution and deprivation of citizenship, all under the protection of the Saudi armed forces.
This is not treated as a violation of the UN Charter, Article 2(4) of which prohibits states from using the “threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state”, because Bahrain is deemed to have invited the Saudis in. The Charter doesn’t envisage the situation that exists here, where the inviting state is governed illegitimately by an autocracy that is opposed by two thirds of the people. Nor is there anything in the UN’s Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which prohibits he demographic engineering being practised by the al-Khalifas. We can only say from a distance what would be treated as a serious criminal offence if we could say it in Manama, that the political and military link with Saudi Arabia is profoundly inimical to the freedom of the people of Bahrain, but ultimately, the freedom and democracy we hoped for in the Arab spring will prevail.