Bahraini Political Prisoners

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:33 pm on 13th January 2022.

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Photo of Bambos Charalambous Bambos Charalambous Shadow Minister (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs) 2:33 pm, 13th January 2022

I congratulate Brendan O'Hara on securing this important debate. We on the Opposition side of the House have serious concerns about the human rights situation in Bahrain, particularly with regard to the detention of political prisoners. We have even more concerns about the UK Government’s lack of action with regard to these prisoners. We believe that the role of a friend is to criticise when necessary. A true friend does not stay silent and turn a blind eye when the wrong course of action is being taken. It is simply wrong that on the eve of a free trade agreement between us and Bahrain, UK Ministers remain deafeningly silent on the issue of human rights and the ongoing detention of political prisoners.

Labour has regularly called on UK Ministers to use our country’s close relationship with Bahrain to press publicly for human rights reform. We have also called on the UK Government to do all they can to press for the immediate release of political prisoners in Bahrain who are still detained for standing up for democracy. Members have mentioned a number of such prisoners during the course of this debate, including Dr Abduljalil al-Singace and Hasan Mushaima.

We have heard in this debate many examples of how torture and due process violations are endemic in Bahrain. Prison conditions and treatment of political prisoners are notorious and regularly contravene international human rights law. Bahrain has the highest number of political prisoners per capita in the middle east. There are currently about 1,500 political prisoners in the small kingdom, according to the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy. It is also well known that there has been a crackdown in Bahrain, targeting members of the majority Shi’a community, since authorities crushed the popular uprising during the 2011 Arab spring.

Bahrain has even shunned visit requests—from the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights defenders in 2012 and 2015, and even more recently from special rapporteurs on torture, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. Yet, despite cross-party calls for the UK to secure the release of Bahrainis political prisoners, little has been done by UK Ministers. In fact, the issue has been swept under the carpet.

It has now been 10 years since Britain began funding training and other enterprises in Bahrain and yet torture survivors continue to face execution and political leaders languish behind bars. Even worse than that, it has been argued that the UK Government can be seen as complicit in some of the abuse that has occurred, because of their wilful lack of scrutiny over how UK funds are spent in the region. It is worth looking more closely at the UK Government’s role in these matters.

The integrated activity fund was established by the UK Government in 2015 to support the delivery of flexible, cross-cutting and sustained investment to Bahrain and other countries in the Gulf region. Labour has regularly expressed concern that, in allocating UK taxpayer money to the integrated activity fund, the UK Government have not followed their own human rights due diligence policies. The integrated activity fund was replaced at the end of last year by the Gulf strategy fund.

A cross-party report by the all-party group on democracy and human rights in the Gulf, which was published in July 2021, found that programmes supported by the IAF had been run

“with absolute minimal levels of accountability, transparency and due diligence in spite of being repeatedly implicated in human rights violations.”

The report of the all-party group stated that institutions backed by the IAF had

“whitewashed human rights abuses, placing the UK government at risk of complicity in abuses themselves”.

According to the Government, the GSF in Bahrain had backed reforms to deliver long-term security and stability, but the all-party report found that both the IAF and the GSF fund programmes to bodies in Bahrain that continue to be implicated in serious human rights and international law violations. The report was unequivocal and it was damning. It recommended:

“Government funding to GCC states through the GSF should be immediately suspended pending an independent inquiry into its implication in human rights and international law violations.”

It is important to make it clear that this report received cross-party endorsement, including that of veteran Conservatives such as the Father of the House, Sir Peter Bottomley, and the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, Fiona Bruce.

This is clearly not a partisan party political matter. Indeed, it is clear that standing up for human rights and political prisoners in Bahrain and beyond transcends party politics. It is not a matter of left or right, but a matter of right or wrong. If we as Members of Parliament are not prepared to stand up for what is right on the eve of the free trade deal with Bahrain, when will we be?

It is clear that many Members from across the House believe in the sanctity of human rights and are concerned about political prisoners in Bahrain. They believe, like me, that dialogue with Bahrain and others must remain open, but must not ever shy away from difficult subjects. It is therefore deeply disappointing that the Government apparently do not share this conviction of a sense of right and wrong. That is why we are calling on Ministers to take action now on this issue. We believe that the UK Government should publicly condemn the detention and mistreatment of all Bahraini political prisoners—