Bahraini Political Prisoners

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:19 pm on 13th January 2022.

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Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 2:19 pm, 13th January 2022

I am pleased the right hon. Gentleman is able to say that. Although I acknowledge there have been gigantic steps in the right direction, I will illustrate where the problems are.

We had a Zoom meeting with the hunger strikers, who illustrated the human rights abuses. I was pleased to listen to their concerns, and hopefully in this debate I will be able to express some of my concerns on their behalf. During Bahrain’s popular pro-democracy uprising 11 years ago, the regime demolished 38 Shi’a Muslim mosques. Despite promising they would rebuild the mosques, that has yet to occur after more than a decade.

In addition, during Muharram last year—a most important time in the Shi’a Muslim calendar—the Bahraini Government used covid-19 as an excuse to crack down on civil society’s freedom of religion and practise of religious rites. I am sorry to say there is an evidence base on the abuse of human rights. I always try to be respectful in what I say in seeking change and that is what I am trying to do today.

During Ashura, the Muslim holiday, slogans were hung on buildings in Shi’a-majority villages across Bahrain. The Government damaged and removed those slogans, and imposed targeted discriminatory policies on Shi’a places of worship, a sheer act of coercion. It is appalling that leading figures in Bahrain, including prominent Shi’a clerics such as Sheikh Ali Salman and Sheikh Muhammad Habib, continue to be held unjustly behind bars in Bahrain. Most religious leaders are serving life sentences in prison for their peaceful role in calling for democracy during the 2011 Arab spring, and they have now been wrongfully deprived of their liberty for over 10 years, which is utterly appalling. I have to put that on record in this House. I call for their release.

Some families have had their Bahraini passports removed, meaning they have no citizenship, due to family members’ involvement in peaceful protests. Again, these things are happening. We are saying it very gently, but we have to put it on record and we have to seek change.

A particularly disturbing incident is the Bahraini authorities’ violent attack against political prisoners who were staging a sit-in at Jau prison on 17 April 2021, mentioned by the right hon. Members for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) and for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute. Following that attack, 64 political prisoners were forcibly disappeared for 19 days and held incommunicado for between 30 and 36 days, during which time they were unable to contact their families or their lawyers, in a flagrant violation of both national and international law.

The evidence base for these facts cannot be ignored. Inmates sometimes remained handcuffed and shackled for over a week and were forced to pray in chains and torn, bloodied clothes. They were also forced to eat, sleep and use the toilet in these conditions. If that is not an abuse of human rights, I want to know what is. This act of control and coercion is utterly shocking, and it must be noted that the entire incident took place during Ramadan, while inmates were fasting. None was given their iftar meal.

I know the Minister is a good man, and I know he will respond to the issues of concern raised in this debate. Given these manifest violations of the fundamental human right to freedom of religion or belief in Bahrain, the Minister and the UK Government must do more to call for the release of imprisoned religious leaders and acknowledge the violations they continue to face. They are an abuse of human rights and an abuse of religious views, and we cannot let that go unnoticed; we must call it out. The UK stated in 2020 that

“Bahrain maintained a positive record on freedom of religion or belief.”

My belief is that that statement must be reconsidered, as the evidential base tells us something very different.

Will the Minister—I conclude with this, Madam Deputy Speaker—acknowledge that Bahrain has contravened the human right to freedom of religion of many political prisoners? I think the evidential base is there. Will he commit to urging his counterparts in that country—we ask them gently and we ask them forcibly—to ensure that those prisoners’ immediate and unconditional release from prison is what happens as a result of this debate? That is what we require.