(Urgent Question): To ask the Foreign Secretary if he will make a statement on whether he will use the UK’s constructive dialogue with the Government of Bahrain publicly to raise the cases of two prisoners who have been sentenced to death following torture, and who face a hearing this Monday when their death sentences may be confirmed.
The UK and Bahrain continue to have a close and important relationship. We benefit from an ongoing, open and genuine dialogue in which we work together on mutually beneficial issues while also raising points of significant difference with one another.
It is because of this long-standing partnership that we are able to have candid conversations about matters of importance to the UK—in particular, our human rights concerns. Our relationship allows us to raise sensitive and difficult issues, both privately and publicly, in a constructive manner in order to uphold our moral responsibility on human rights issues. We have raised and will continue to raise the cases both of Mohammed Ramadhan and Hussain Moosa at senior levels with the Government of Bahrain.
The UK’s position on the use of the death penalty is long-standing and unequivocal: we oppose its use in all circumstances and in all countries as a matter of principle. The Government of Bahrain are fully aware of our view. This was made explicitly clear by the former Minister to a senior Bahraini counterpart last year. It was then reinforced by my noble friend Lord Ahmad in the other place, who issued a public statement expressing the UK’s opposition to the use of the death penalty, in response to actions taken in Bahrain.
I can assure the House that our efforts to raise these cases, and also the broader issues of the use of capital punishment, with the Bahraini authorities will continue. Bahrain is a Foreign and Commonwealth Office human rights priority country, in part due to its policy surrounding the death penalty. We continue to monitor developments on all matters that relate to human rights within the country. We remain absolutely committed to the promotion of universal freedoms and upholding human rights globally. That has been made clear only this week with the introduction of the UK’s first autonomous human rights sanctions regime.
The House will be grateful to the Minister.
I want to make it plain that the first constituency case I took was of someone who I thought had been wrongly convicted in this country, and it took five years to establish that. I am working on two long-term cases in the United States of America.
Bahrain is important to us politically, diplomatically and militarily, and we hope that it is a mutual relationship. We know that there are times when Bahrain, as a sovereign country, has paid attention to outside prompting, and we hope, with respect, that it will listen to what is said here, what was said in another place yesterday, and what was said in the three debates that have taken place in Parliament during the past year or so.
Can I ask that the views of Parliament are put to the Bahrain authorities, with our respectful greetings, and say that if either the court of cassation on Monday or a sovereign intervention would make a difference, that would be noticed and appreciated, and would affect the way Bahrain is seen? I do not need to say what would happen if that does not happen.
I know that the Bahrainis do take seriously the views of the United Kingdom and this House. As yet, we do not know what the outcome of the Court of Cassation will be. If the death penalty is handed down again, I can assure the House that our opposition to the death penalty will be restated, at both official and ministerial level, to the Government of Bahrain.
I commend Sir Peter Bottomley for his question on this crucial matter.
The trial is based on evidence secured through torture, including allegations that interrogators threatened to rape the wife of Mohammed Ramadhan in front of him after a series of brutal beatings and hung Hussain Moosa from the ceiling for three days while beating his genitals with batons. Finally, they have been sentenced to death. Condemnation of the trials of these two men has been almost universal from many of the organisations to which the hon. Gentleman referred. All have condemned the use of torture and all have called for their death sentences to be quashed.
Unfortunately, we have yet to see a decisive statement on this matter from the Government. Worse still, the two Bahraini security bodies that enabled the torture—the Special Investigations Unit and the ombudsman for the Ministry of Interior—were funded by this Government. The Government say that they engage with the Bahraini Government on human rights, the use of torture and the death penalty, and I listened carefully to what the Minister said, but where are the results from that engagement, given this case and many others? Since 2012, the Government have provided over £5 million of technical assistance, yet the number of executions has increased and human rights abuses have increased.
The Foreign Secretary spoke earlier this week about Magnitsky sanctions, absolutely rightly so, and the importance of human rights and opposing the death penalty and torture. In that light, will the Minister condemn the use of torture by the security forces in Bahrain in these two cases, rather than just monitoring them? Will the Prime Minister raise this matter with the King? Will the Minister raise it directly with his opposite number? Will he press the Government of Bahrain to establish an independent commission of inquiry to conduct an Istanbul protocol-compliant investigation into the torture allegations for these two men? Will he freeze assistance to the Bahraini security bodies that are potentially implicated in this case? Will he publish the human rights assessments and the assessments against the overseas security and justice assistance guidance, which the Foreign Office is supposed to use when funding such programmes to assess whether the programmes it supports are implicated in torture and the use of the death penalty.
It is one thing for the Foreign Secretary to speak of taking action against those complicit in torture and the death penalty, those who are blood-drenched, but it is another for the Government to walk the walk. Time is of the essence in this case. Will the Minister speak out? Will the Government speak out at the highest levels and do what they can to get the death sentences commuted?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the points he raises. I can assure him that the United Kingdom Government, Her Majesty’s Government, oppose torture as well as the death penalty, and that has been communicated widely and regularly. It is well known around the world. He makes reference to the OSJA process. I can assure him that that is a robust process that ensures that when the British Government train or support other Governments around the world, that training or support is not used to facilitate human rights abuses. The process constantly reviews our relationships and I am confident that it is robust.
With regard to the oversight bodies the hon. Gentleman mentions, it should be noted that they have brought about a change in the way that Bahrain works. Police officers and prison officers have been brought to justice because of the oversight bodies that we support. The Bahraini royal family have demonstrated a desire to improve their structures and transparency, and the resilience of their governmental structures. The oversight bodies we support are a part of that. While they continue to express the desire to improve their structures and head in a positive direction, we will maintain our support to enable them to do so. As I said, Bahrain remains a human rights priority country. We wish to see improvement. Where the Bahrain Government express desire to implement that improvement, we will continue to support them to do so.
I very much welcome the urgent question by my hon. Friend Sir Peter Bottomley. I draw my right hon. Friend the Minister’s attention to the Foreign Affairs Committee report of 2018, in which we raised questions about this funding because of the torture of Mr Ramadhan and Mr Moosa. May I urge him to think very hard about the position of Her Majesty’s Government on this? I also urge him to write to His Majesty King Hamad and remind him that al-rahman al-rahim—the most compassionate, the most merciful—are the names that are given to God, by the Prophet, peace be upon him, and that perhaps this might be one of those moments where His Majesty could think hard about the decisions that are before him.
I thank my hon. Friend; his points are very well made. One of the advantages of having more than 200 years of relationship with the Bahraini is that we can speak candidly, clearly and at the highest levels. We are more than comfortable with reiterating our opposition to the death penalty and torture, and we are happy to restate that at the highest levels within Bahraini society.
As the SNP spokesperson on international human rights and as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on democracy and human rights in the Gulf, I congratulate Sir Peter Bottomley on securing this urgent question. The Minister and his FCO colleagues have become serial correspondents on this issue recently, as recourse to the death penalty in Bahrain has become increasingly commonplace. Since 2012, the United Kingdom has been providing Bahrain with what it calls technical assistance. That technical assistance is designed to build effective and accountable institutions, strengthen the rule of law and assist with police and judicial reform. That is clearly not happening. Given that the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims has declared that the investigation of this case, carried out by the Bahrain special investigation unit, was seriously flawed, failed to meet even the minimum standards of international recognition and breached the Istanbul protocol, will the Minister now urgently review that technical assistance programme to Bahrain, and will he agree to suspend it immediately if these death sentences are carried out?
The point I made in response to the shadow Minister is that the OSJA process is robust. The process is designed to ensure that when the United Kingdom Government provide assistance to a foreign Government, it does not in any way help to facilitate human rights abuses. It is held constantly in review and we review our relationships regularly, so obviously, by definition, our relationship with Bahrain and any future technical assistance will be assessed against the criteria that we have put out. I would say, however, that a number of the oversight bodies are only in existence because of the strength of the relationship between the United Kingdom and the Government of Bahrain. Where those bodies are seeking to improve and to become more transparent and robust, we will seek to help them to do so. If we were to disengage, I do not believe that that would be conducive to improving the human rights situation in Bahrain.
I thank the Minister for his comments on this case. Building on that engagement, what action are the Government taking to ensure that Bahrain is meeting its human rights obligations and, wider still, what steps is my right hon. Friend taking to continue to position the UK at the forefront of promoting human rights, to ensure that rights really are respected in Bahrain and across the world?
The UK Government remain committed to promoting universal freedoms and human rights around the world. That is and will remain at the heart of our foreign policy, to ensure that the UK remains a force for good. Being able to promote human rights cannot just be done in the abstract, although it is easy to do so from these green Benches. To be a real, meaningful champion of human rights, we have to have influence on Governments. Bahrain is a human rights priority country, and through our close relationship with Bahrain, we seek to persuade and support it on a journey to improve its human rights situation. That is how effective Governments operate.
With only five days to save their lives, and in the light of the UK’s assistance to the bodies that enabled their torture and death sentences, can the Minister confirm that the Government will make effective representations in the cases of Mohammed Ramadhan and Hussain Moosa before the Court of Cassation’s final decision on Monday?
I thank the hon. Lady for the point that she has raised. As I have said, it is the strength of the relationship between the UK and Bahrain that allows us to have frank, candid and regular conversations at senior official, ministerial and Head of State level about a whole range of things. I assure her that if the death penalties are upheld through the Court of Cassation process, the UK will publicly and loudly remind Bahrain of our opposition to the death penalty, and we will continue to seek to have it set aside.
Listening to the excellent Minister, I am wondering whether, to get the result that everyone wants, the comments should be made to Bahrain in private rather than necessarily in public. Can I ask him about freedom of the press in Bahrain? A free press helps to guarantee human rights. What efforts are being made to ensure that there is freedom of the press in Bahrain?
One of the first events that I took part in on being appointed as Minister was when the Foreign and Commonwealth Office hosted journalists from north Africa and the middle east to support media freedom. Media freedom remains a priority for the UK Government. Legislation is planned in Bahrain to provide additional protection to journalists, but the timing and detail around that legislation remains vague. We continue to engage at senior level to push for that legislation to be brought forward, and for the enhancement of the protection of journalists in Bahrain.
As co-chair of the all-party parliamentary human rights group, I wrote to the FCO, along with my hon. Friend Brendan O’Hara, on Monday to request an urgent meeting about the cases of Mohammed Ramadhan and Hussain Moosa. With less than one week to save their lives, and in the light of the UK’s assistance to the special investigations unit that enabled their torture and imminent death sentences, will the Minister meet us to discuss those cases before the Court of Cassation’s final decision on Monday?
I am always happy to meet parliamentary colleagues about important issues such as this. The likely timing of the Court of Cassation judgment may make it difficult to do so before Monday, but I assure the hon. Lady that we will continue to make every effort to prevent the death penalty, whether it be in Bahrain or more widely. I assure her that even if the death penalty is upheld by the Court of Cassation, that will not be the end of our efforts to prevent the death penalty in Bahrain. As I say, I am more than happy to facilitate a meeting with her and with parliamentary colleagues.
I wonder whether my right hon. Friend could tell the House what wider measures his Department is taking to ensure political reform and democratic accountability in Bahrain.
Bahrain remains one of only two countries in the Gulf with an elected Parliament. UK support has strengthened the institutional capacity of the Bahraini Parliament’s secretariat, and we have enhanced the skills of staff to support MPs in their oversight of the Government. In addition, we have helped local NGOs to raise Bahraini youth awareness of democracy and parliamentary work, and we will continue to pursue those things.
I chair the all-party parliamentary British-Qatar group, among others, and the Minister will know that when it comes to engaging with countries in the Gulf, I preach a sermon of pragmatism and humility. But surely we can only encourage progress if we see it actually happening—expressing desire for change is not good enough. The OSJA process on which the Minister relies has been criticised by the Home Affairs Committee as being not fit for purpose. If he is going to rely on that process, will he publish the assessment carried out under it in relation to this assistance, and will he promote within Government an overhaul of that whole process?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the points that he made. It was a Conservative Foreign Secretary who brought in the OSJA process, and as I have said, it is, by definition, constantly under review, and we seek always to improve it. The oversight bodies that have been criticised in the Chamber today only recently came into existence, and their existence is, in significant part, because of the work that the UK Government have done with the Bahrainis. There is a desire to see these organisations and their processes improve, and our technical assistance is part of that improvement programme. It would be entirely counter- productive for these organisations to be dispensed with, because I cannot see how that would increase or improve the oversight of the human rights situation. The aim surely should be to improve them, and it is through our close working relationship that we seek to do so.
The best way of ensuring that Bahrain understands our position is to say it loudly, regularly and directly. As I say, we have had a relationship of over two centuries with the Bahrainis, which perhaps gives us a unique ability to speak candidly and frankly at the highest levels. I assure my hon. Friend that we will continue to do so.
When the Foreign Secretary announced earlier this week the imposition of Magnitsky-style powers to sanction those complicit in human rights violations and abuses, he said that this country makes it
“crystal clear to those who abuse their power to inflict unimaginable suffering that we will not look the other way.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 678, c. 664.]
Will the Minister therefore confirm that the UK Government will impose a human rights sanction on both individuals and organisations in the Bahraini authorities who have been complicit in the torture of Mohammed Ramadhan and Hussain Moosa?
I was incredibly proud when my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary announced the UK’s independent sanctions regime and demonstrated to both the House and the world that the United Kingdom takes human rights abuses seriously and will deal with them. While we were a member of the European Union’s human rights sanctions regime, we had a convention where we did not discuss potential future sanctions, and that remains the convention under our domestic sanctions regime.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Father of the House on bringing forward this urgent question in such a timely manner. Does the Minister agree that cutting our modest and highly monitored technical assistance to Bahrain, particularly the special investigations unit and the ombudsman, would likely make matters worse? Will he use the influence that he has with Bahrain and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to ensure that the judiciary is distanced from the Executive and that sentencing discretion is reduced in those two countries, since it too often produces perverse and unpredictable outcomes?
My right hon. Friend and predecessor knows better than many the nature of our relationship. I commend him for his work on this issue directly with the Bahrainis. As I have found in many cases, both public and private, I can commend the work that he has done and agree wholeheartedly with it. It is the strength of our relationship—the long-standing, strong and powerful relationship between the Government of the UK and the Government of Bahrain—that allows us to support improvements when they are put in place and to ensure that oversight bodies improve their independence and effectiveness. We will continue to push for that improvement.
I thank the Minister for his statement arising from this urgent question. The situation is now very serious, given that both Mohammed Ramadhan and Hussain Moosa are at risk of imminent execution should their sentence, which is based on a torture-obtained confession, be upheld in five days’ time, so will the Minister ask our ambassador to Bahrain urgently to attend their trial in Bahrain as an international observer?
One by-product of the strength of our relationship is the ability of Her Majesty’s ambassador to attend trials of this nature in Bahrain. I have spoken to Her Majesty’s ambassador to Bahrain on a number of occasions about this very issue, most recently this morning. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we remain fully engaged and that the ambassador and his team are fully engaged in the country. If the Court of Cassation hands down a death sentence again, we will not stop at that point but will continue to dissuade the Bahrainis from utilising the death penalty.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments so far. It is clear that our relationship with Bahrain is not just strong and deep diplomatically, but exists across a range of areas, from business to the armed forces. Will he reassure the House that we will use that range of channels to encourage diplomatic, human rights and political reform in Bahrain?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the strength of our relationship with Bahrain stretches across a number of areas, including commercial, military, security and social. I have said it a number of times, but it is worth repeating that it is because of the strength of our long-standing relationship that we are able to have difficult conversations with the Bahrainis on issues such as press freedom and human rights.
There are 24 prisoners on death row in Bahrain, of whom 10 are in imminent danger of execution. Those 10 include Zuhair Abdullah and Husain Rashid, whose cases I raised with the Foreign Secretary when he gave his statement on human rights abusers on Monday. His reply that the designation of abusers will be blind to ulterior considerations was somewhat undermined by the decision the next day by the Secretary of State for International Trade to resume the arms trade with Saudi Arabia. Will the Minister look again at the responsibility of individuals in the Bahraini regime, and in particular Prince Nasser bin Hamad, the son of the King, who is alleged to have an involvement in torture going back to the Arab spring and whose diplomatic immunity was removed by the High Court here?
The hon. Gentleman conflates two fundamentally different issues when he talks about the export licences and our sanctions regime. The sanctions regime that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary put forward this week highlights the huge importance that Her Majesty’s Government put on enhancing and protecting human rights. Individuals were sanctioned, and I am proud of the fact that we were able to put those sanctions into force. We will continue to protect human rights and we will continue to encourage Governments around the world, including in the Gulf, to improve their record on human rights. We will do so both publicly and privately and in the most effective way, whatever that is.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Bahraini Government have demonstrated a desire to improve. They want to have a free and robust judicial system, and we want to help them to do that. Through technical assistance, we will help to encourage improvements in the core institutions of Bahraini society.
Under Bahrain and Britain’s integrated activity fund, the special investigation unit in Bahrain has received UK taxpayer-funded training through the College of Policing, but that institution has now been shown to be complicit in the whitewashed investigation that led to these men’s death sentences being reimposed. Will the right hon. Gentleman now halt any support for the Bahraini oversight institutions, which have demonstrated that they do no more than facilitate the whitewashing of human rights abuses and allow an escalation in the usage of the death penalty?
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office does not currently provide funding or training to the Bahraini Royal Academy of Policing. The UK has been providing a range of technical and practical assistance to the Government of Bahrain since 2013 to bring about improvements in the robustness of their oversight bodies. Where abuses have taken place, public servants have been brought to justice, and my understanding is that 97 police officers or prison officers have been brought to justice due in significant part to the oversight bodies that the UK Government have helped to strengthen and improve.
I understand—nobody has mentioned this so far—that both men were convicted on one confession and on forensic evidence and victim and witness testimony, including mobile phone records and text messages that co-ordinated the attack that lured police officers into a deadly trap. One policeman was killed and others, including civilians, were badly hurt. I visited Bahrain’s independent human rights oversight body, and I was impressed by its independence and its reports—it can go anywhere. I do not support the death penalty, and I hope that if the sentences are upheld on Monday, His Majesty the King of Bahrain will commute them. However, does the Minister agree that Bahrain’s judicial system is pretty fair and very open to scrutiny, especially when looking around the rest of the middle east?
I thank my hon. and gallant Friend. I am not in a position to go into the details of all the evidence that was put forward in the trial of the two men, but the oversight bodies that the UK Government support, including the Court of Cassation, have been able to conduct oversight of the process. We want to support the judiciary in Bahrain to continue to improve. Indeed, we are pleased, following work with the Bahrainis, that they are now moving to alternative sentencing to reduce the number of people in incarceration and are learning from the UK about reducing the prison population and overcrowding in prisons. We want to continue to support the Bahrainis as they move in the right direction when it comes to their criminal justice system.
My hon. Friend is right; the UK, both in society and in government, is opposed to the death penalty across the world. We make that point clearly and regularly to our friends around the world, and we will continue to push for that in general. Indeed, in the instance of these two individuals, if the Court of Cassation upholds the death sentence—the decision has not yet been made—we will continue to lobby the Bahrainis for it not to be imposed in this case.
The United Kingdom and the kingdom of Bahrain enjoy a close and enduring relationship born out of friendship and marked by genuine affection and mutual respect. British values, not race or religion, characterise our people and we place the sanctity of human rights above all considerations. That being indisputable, will my right hon. Friend confirm to the House that human rights remain at the heart of every policy of Her Majesty’s Government, including foreign policy, and that that is exemplified by their designation of Bahrain as a human rights priority country?
My hon. Friend is right; human rights are absolutely at the heart of this Government’s foreign policy. They are a topic that I discuss regularly with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and my noble friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, who leads for Her Majesty’s Government on human rights. We will continue to push for improvements on human rights around the world with all our friends and partners internationally. I assure him and the House that that will remain absolutely at the heart of foreign policy. It is a point on which the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary are rightly proud.
Following on from the question from David Linden, the UK’s College of Policing continued to provide training to the ombudsman of the Ministry of Interior and the Bahraini special investigation unit in 2019. Will the Minister inform the House what the College of Policing’s training covers on the treatment of prisoners, the use of torture and the threat of the death penalty against prisoners?
As I have said on a number of occasions, the United Kingdom strongly opposes the use of the death penalty and the use of torture. Our technical assistance to those oversight bodies is to ensure that they improve their effectiveness and transparency. That is what the work of the UK Government, in conjunction with the Bahraini Government, is seeking to achieve, and we will continue to push for the improved accountability, transparency and effectiveness of such oversight bodies.
I begin by thanking the constituents of mine who raised this issue with me. It serves as a reminder to the Bahraini Government of how badly these cases affect their reputation among residents of the world, including in Crewe and Nantwich. We have covered the importance of judicial reform and political reform. Will my right hon. Friend update us on what progress we have made in discussing freedom of religion with the Bahraini royal family?
Freedom of religion is also a cornerstone of our force for good in UK foreign policy. My hon. Friend Rehman Chishti works with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on protection for religious freedom; he will take an interest in my hon. Friend’s point. We very much impress upon our friends around the world the importance of religious freedom, and we will do so with regard to Bahrain as well.
If their death sentences are confirmed, Mohammed Ramadhan and Hussain Moosa will have exhausted all their legal remedies and will face imminent execution. What is the Minister’s assessment of the efficacy of the Government’s encouragement of Bahrain to follow due process and meet its international human rights obligations?
As I have said, the existence of the oversight bodies is in part because of the work that the UK has done with Bahrain. We will seek to continue to improve the effectiveness and transparency of those oversight bodies. That will be an enduring function of our relationship with the Bahrainis.
My right hon. Friend has already referred to this in answer to a previous question, but given the key importance that a truly free press has in ensuring human rights, will he provide further assurances to the House that the Government will take every possible step to safeguard press freedoms in Bahrain?
As I have said, we do have concerns about the diversity of the press in Bahrain. It is part of the reason why Bahrain remains a human rights priority country for the UK. We know that there is proposed legislation, and we will encourage the Bahrainis to bring this forward swiftly.
It seems to be the case—I want to understand why—that the FCO has defended the Bahraini ombudsman and the Special Investigations Unit, which it seems to want to improve, in its clearly flawed and heavily influenced investigations into the extraction of so-called confessions by torture from Mohammed and Hussain. If we are to have any continuing measure of international legitimacy, we must not be seen to be supporting regimes, and agencies within regimes, that whitewash allegations of torture, resulting in totally disgraceful death sentences on bogus charges simply for voicing dissent. There is no time to monitor a journey by Bahrain on human rights. I appeal to the Minister not to rest for a second on this issue as it is a matter of justice and of life and death.
A number of right hon. and hon. Members have raised these oversight bodies. It is important that there is oversight of the process, so oversight bodies need to exist. It is important that those oversight bodies improve, and we are seeking to improve them. The Government of Bahrain desire to improve those oversight bodies and we are helping them to do so. Where a country with which we have had relations for more than two centuries explicitly seeks to improve the transparency, effectiveness and resilience of its institutions, we will seek to help it provide that improvement.
In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am now suspending the House for three minutes.