Bahraini Political Prisoners

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:25 pm on 13th January 2022.

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Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 2:25 pm, 13th January 2022

I am delighted to participate in this debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend Brendan O'Hara on bringing this important matter to the Floor of the House.

Life for citizens living under the Bahraini regime must give all of us who believe in democratic values deep cause for concern. Those who criticise the regime in Bahrain are, as we have heard today, subjected to the most cruel and random treatment, which is an affront to all that is decent: unfair trials of protesters and critics of the regime; ill treatment of detainees which is tantamount to torture; the fabrication of evidence against those in custody; minority groups targeted; the use of the death penalty; the suppression of freedom of expression; and even reports of rape and electric shock treatments for detainees, some of whom are juveniles. That is the ugly story of life under the current regime in Bahrain.

We are all aware of the Isa Town prison, the only female detention facility in Bahrain, where female prisoners suffer politically motivated human rights violations, such as being denied medical care, physical and psychological abuse, threats of sexual violence and religious discrimination, as well as arbitrary detention and collective punishment. No one should be an apologist for that regime, certainly not from the comfort of the Westminster Benches.

We can also consider the case of Mr al-Singace. We have heard much about Mr al-Singace this afternoon, a 59-year-old academic languishing in prison following his peaceful opposition to Bahrain’s dictatorship during the 2011 Arab spring. Having already endured degrading treatment and torture, suffered medical negligence, and endured the indignity of being denied sanitation facilities, he is currently on hunger strike facing a slow death in prison.

What do we hear from the UK Government? We know that they have hosted meetings with Bahraini officials, but they appear to have exercised no influence over the regime and remain a staunch ally. Given that the Government are an ally of that regime, what does that say about the so-called old-fashioned British values we hear about? Whatever action the UK Government are prepared to take against the Bahraini regime and whatever influence they are prepared to bring to bear, that is a choice. To refuse to take any action against the regime, or to refuse to use their influence is also a choice. I fully support early-day motion 578 calling for the UK Government to impose Magnitsky sanctions on those responsible for the unlawful imprisonment of Dr al-Singace. I am sure that many Members have also supported the motion.

I remember the fanfare, on 6 July 2020, around the launch of the UK Government’s global human rights sanctions regime, which meant the Foreign Secretary would have the power to sanction persons implicated in human rights abuses anywhere across the globe. Yet Bahraini leaders such as General Rashid bin Abdullah Al Khalifa have been hosted by senior members of this Government. People like him are deeply implicated in the torture of some of their own citizens in Bahrain. It is even more curious that, while the UK Government were cutting humanitarian aid by billions last year, including for clean water and nutrition, their support for the Gulf strategy fund, the former integrated activity fund, increased by 154%. The integrated activity fund has been completely discredited due to its lack of transparency and links to regimes with dubious human rights records, such as Bahrain.

I hope that the Minister, when he gets to his feet, can explain how the flagrant human rights abuses perpetrated by the Bahraini regime’s leaders are impacting on its relationship with the UK. Are they impacting at all? Bahrain’s leaders are still feted by UK Government officials and money is increasingly finding its way into Bahrain from the UK. Where does that leave the UK’s relationship with this barbaric regime? It looks for all the world as though the UK Government, for all their pretensions to be a global supporter of human rights, are content to turn a blind eye to these appalling human rights abuses when it suits. By maintaining unconditional political and economic support for the Bahraini regime, the UK Government are enabling and facilitating brutality and repression in that country.

We need the UK Government to be much more transparent about which projects the UK funds in Bahrain, with human rights assessments for each. Failure to do so can only heighten concerns. A public inquiry into whether the integrated activity fund—now the Gulf strategy fund—has propped up regimes with poor human rights records is critical. However, while the pressure for such an inquiry grows, the fund continues to operate, despite billions of pounds of cuts to international aid spending by this Government. It is disgraceful that the UK’s Ministry of Defence has carried out training programmes with Bahraini military forces, notwithstanding the fact that Bahrain is on the Foreign Office’s human rights watch list.

The UK Government need to send a clear and robust signal that the human rights abuses in Bahrain are unacceptable. They must look to their funding mechanisms and their inaction, and stop conferring legitimacy on this appallingly cruel and barbaric regime. We too often hear the UK Government trumpeting their role as a force for good in the world, but words are not enough. All funding for Bahraini programmes that are not focused on poverty alleviation must be suspended until we have much greater transparency around these programmes.

We need the UK Government to introduce a resolution addressing human rights violations in Bahrain at the UN Human Rights Council. We need a UN-led commission to investigate torture within Bahrain that allows access to prisons. As long as Bahrain denies access to independent human rights monitors, including Amnesty International, we can be sure that the regime continues to torture and otherwise mistreat its citizens. The argument that I have heard today, that there are worse regimes than Bahrain, will offer no comfort, and should offer no comfort, to those who have suffered barbaric treatment under that regime.

It is time for the UK to do the right thing and put its money where its mouth is. If it wants to be a force for good in the world, as it often says it does, it cannot choose to pass by on the other side while those in Bahrain standing up for freedom are brutalised. I hope that the UK Government will use every diplomatic tool at their disposal to effect greater respect for human rights in Bahrain. Our own respect for human rights demands nothing less.