Bahraini Political Prisoners

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:40 pm on 13th January 2022.

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Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 1:40 pm, 13th January 2022

I think the Father of the House hits the nail squarely on the head, and I look forward to his contribution.

I applied for the debate not just so that Members across the House could mark the events of February 2011, but to ensure that those pro-democracy campaigners who demand freedom and political reform are not forgotten. It is of equal importance that the debate gives us the opportunity to question the Government and ask once again why they continue to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses in Bahrain while sending millions of pounds of taxpayers’ cash to the Gulf state via the highly secretive Gulf strategy fund.

On 14 February 2011, having been inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, tens of thousands of Bahraini citizens took to the streets to demand political reform. Rather than engaging with their citizens, the Bahraini Government responded with a brutal crackdown, even going so far as to call in a Saudi-led intervention force from neighbouring states to help crush what had been hitherto an overwhelmingly peaceful uprising. In that crackdown, at least 19 protesters were killed, some tortured to death while in state custody, while thousands more were rounded up and detained by the authorities, with the leaders sentenced to life in jail. By any standard, the response of the state was brutal, uncompromising and wholly disproportionate. More than a decade on, Bahrain had one of the most repressed civil societies in the world, with no political opposition and without a free press. Recently, Reporters Without Borders ranked Bahrain 168th of the 180 countries in the world press freedom index. It was no surprise to find that The Economist placed Bahrain 150th of 167 countries in its 2020 global democracy index.

Despite the brutal repression of the pro-democracy movement and the continued suppression of basic human rights in Bahrain, the UK remains one of its staunchest allies, making a mockery of any claim we may have had to be pursuing an ethical foreign policy, because states that pursue such a policy do not bankroll regimes that stand accused of widespread human rights abuses, including the use of torture and the execution of political dissidents. I suspect that the Minister knows that already. I am afraid that the old excuse of, “We are leading by example”, or, “Things would be so much worse if we weren’t there”, will simply no longer wash, because after a decade of Britain love-bombing Bahrain, there has been no improvement in its behaviour.

I will give the UK Government this, though: they are nothing if not loyal to their friends. Even when they were slashing humanitarian aid to help eradicate hunger and disease in some of the poorest countries on the planet, they actually increased the amount of money they gave to their allies in the Gulf, including Bahrain. A freedom of information request by the Scottish National party revealed that the Gulf strategy fund was increased by 145% last year. That came in the same year that Amnesty International said:

“The Bahraini state has crushed the hopes and expectations raised by the mass protests of 10 years ago, reacting with a brutal crackdown over the subsequent decade that has been facilitated by the shameful silence of Bahrain’s Western allies, especially the UK and the US.”

While the UK sends more and more taxpayers’ cash to Bahrain, the old repression and detention of political prisoners in Bahrain continues. Arguably, the most urgent of these cases is that of Dr al-Singace, the 59-year-old academic and human rights activist who was initially detained in 2010, having returned from speaking at a conference in the House of Lords. He was subsequently released but was re-arrested in 2011, in the aftermath of the popular uprising. Following his detention, Dr al-Singace, a professor of engineering who is disabled and requires either crutches or a wheelchair, was subjected to physical and mental torture, as well as sexual abuse, at the hands of the Bahraini authorities. He was charged with plotting to overthrow the Government and given a life sentence.

The verdict was immediately condemned by human rights activists and non-governmental organisations, with the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists condemning the Bahraini Government for

“a stunning disregard for due process and basic human rights.”

The French NGO Reporters Without Borders declared that his only crime was

“freely expressing opinions contrary to those of the government”.

He has languished in jail for more than a decade, and in July, exactly 190 days ago, he went on hunger strike in protest at the Bahraini authorities’ confiscation of an academic book he had been working on for the past four years of incarceration. In October last year, 46 parliamentarians signed an open letter to the Foreign Secretary asking her to intervene on behalf of Dr al-Singace and his family, but I am sorry to say that nothing has been done and the Government have remained largely silent.

Of course, there are many, many more political prisoners being held in Bahrain’s jails simply for voicing or organising their opposition to the regime. Another case worthy of highlighting is that of 74-year-old Hassan Mushaima, the former leader of Bahrain’s opposition, who is also serving a life sentence, having been jailed in the aftermath of the pro-democracy uprising in 2011. He, too, has been subject to torture and now suffers from medical complications resulting from it. Just before Christmas I met his son Ali, who is working tirelessly to secure his father’s unconditional release. In December, Ali held his own hunger strike outside the Bahraini embassy here in London for 23 days, demanding the release of all political prisoners, including his father.

I know how grateful Ali was for the support shown by Members of this House, particularly those who visited him in the freezing cold days in December. It was meeting Ali on the steps of the Bahraini embassy that was in many ways the catalyst for today’s debate, because I promised him that I would seek to raise his father’s case on the Floor of the House if he agreed to give up his hunger strike before he caused irreparable damage to himself. I am hugely grateful to those who have helped me to keep that promise to Ali and his family, and I wish him well as he recovers from his ordeal.

While I highlight the situation facing Hassan Mushaima and Dr al-Singace, there are others whose predicament is even worse—the prisoners on death row who have exhausted all legal remedies available to them and are now at imminent risk of execution. The executions are only pending ratification by the king, and painful experience tells us that they could be carried out any day without little or no warning given to the families. Of the 26 people awaiting execution in Bahrain, no fewer than 12 have been convicted of political charges. A recent report by the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy and Reprieve found that executions in Bahrain have increased by a factor of 10 since the UK began its financial assistance through the integrated activity fund in 2017.

Just this morning, Human Rights Watch published its annual report. One look at the section on Bahrain shows that things are not getting any better and that the UK’s attempts at gentle persuasion have failed miserably. However, can we expect the Government to change tack? Of course we all understand that much of this is wrapped up in the UK still wanting to appear an important player on the world stage, coupled with a desperate attempt to secure a trade deal with the countries that make up the Gulf Co-operation Council—something, anything, that will offset the damage done to the UK economy by Brexit. But surely we cannot allow a desire for a trade deal to trample over the moral obligation we have to call out human rights abusers, no matter how deep their pockets or how lucrative the terms on offer. If we choose to go down this road of being a champion for democracy and human rights, but only when it does not upset our rich and powerful allies, then in reality we are not champions of human rights at all.

Will the Minister raise directly with the Bahraini authorities the cases of Dr al-Singace and Hassan Mushaima, and the other political prisoners, and demand justice for those jailed for their part in exercising the basic human right of freedom of speech? Will the Government finally abandon their obviously failed policy of trying to love-bomb Bahrain into improving its awful human rights record by putting some real pressure on the regime to change its ways? That could start by suspending the Gulf strategy fund and establishing a public inquiry into whether that fund has supported regimes with poor human rights records.

The UK could stop funding Bahrain’s Ministry of Interior and the ombudsman—bodies that are involved in torture and the whitewashing of abuses against political prisoners. The UK could end all joint training programmes with the Bahraini military until such time as Bahrain allows access to independent human rights monitors, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and UN human rights organisations such as the working group on arbitrary detention. The UK could call for a UN-led commission to investigate torture within Bahrain—one that permits the UN special rapporteur on torture access to its prisons.

In short, there is so much the United Kingdom could do, but is not doing, to call out human rights abuses by its friends. I believe that that refusal to act is doing the United Kingdom enormous reputational damage.