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Bahrain — [Siobhain McDonagh in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 11th September 2018.

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Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith 9:30 am, 11th September 2018

The right hon. Gentleman is, as always, ahead of me—he is on to the next page of my speech.

Since Britain’s reform assistance programme in Bahrain began, that country’s human rights record has deteriorated. Detainees held in Bahraini detention facilities have made frequent and sustained allegations of torture and forced or coerced confession, and courts have routinely convicted defendants on the basis of such confessions. Meanwhile, Bahrain refuses to allow the UN’s torture experts to enter the country.

The Bahraini Government have also persecuted and imprisoned peaceful human rights defenders, not least Nabeel Rajab, the founder of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights and a shortlisted candidate for this year’s Václav Havel human rights prize, awarded by the Council of Europe, who was recently sentenced to five years in prison for tweeting. Sayed Alwadaei, the director of the London-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy—BIRD—has watched as his family members in Bahrain have been tortured and imprisoned in retaliation for his human rights advocacy in the UK. I note that Mr Alwadaei is here today. I thank him for his bravery and tenacity, and for continuing his laudable work in the face of such persecution, and I hope that the Minister does the same.

Hassan Mushaima, now 70 years old and a founding Bahraini opposition leader, was arrested alongside 12 other political leaders in 2011, and then tortured and sentenced to life imprisonment. He is being denied access to his most basic rights, including medical assistance, while in Jau prison, a detention centre that in July 2018 was criticised by the UN for its inhumane conditions. Hassan’s son, Ali, escaped arrest because he was in the UK in 2011. Fourteen days ago he started a hunger strike outside the Bahrain embassy in London, asking that his father be given access to adequate medical treatment, family visitations and books. Ali Mushaima is here today. I hope the Minister will also join his call for more humane treatment for his father and all other political prisoners in Bahrain.

Worst of all, as my hon. Friend Nick Thomas-Symonds pointed out in his intervention, during the UK’s current assistance to Bahrain, Bahrain broke a seven-year moratorium on capital punishment, with the execution of three torture victims by a secret firing squad in January 2017. The UN special rapporteur on summary executions swiftly declared the executions of Abbas al-Samea, Sami Mushaima and Ali al-Singace to be extrajudicial killings. After those unlawful executions, the size of Bahrain’s death row tripled in less than a year, and 21 individuals now await execution. It is a particular concern that specific Bahraini institutions trained by the UK have been responsible for serious violations of international human rights law, either while receiving UK training or shortly thereafter. Those violations have been especially severe, with catastrophic consequences in the case of death row inmates.

I want to spend a little more time talking about some of the people who have directly suffered violations and about the grave abuses they have experienced at the hands of Bahraini bodies supported by the UK. Al-Samea, Mushaima and al-Singace were executed in January 2017. Mushaima and al-Singace were the nephews of prominent peaceful opposition political activists in Bahrain, which their families believe is the real reason they were falsely accused of terrorism offences. All three men were tortured by police and forced to confess. Methods of torture included beatings, electric shocks and sodomy with metal objects. Al-Samea was tortured and al-Singace was raped by prison guards at a facility at which the UK was training 400 members of staff.

Al-Samea and Mushaima filed complaints about their torture with UK-trained torture investigators: the ombudsman for the Ministry of Interior and the Special Investigation Unit, the SIU. Those institutions, which are mandated to conduct inquiries into torture complaints lodged by detainees in Bahrain, failed to properly investigate any of the complaints made by the men. Mushaima’s lawyer submitted complaints about his client’s torture and false confession to both bodies, neither of which ever conducted an investigation. The SIU later rejected al-Samea’s torture allegations without interviewing him or commissioning an independent medical examination. The three men were never allowed to meet with lawyers and were eventually convicted and sentenced to death in trials that relied almost entirely on their torture-tainted confessions.

Mohammed Ramadan and Husain Moosa face imminent execution for alleged terrorism offences while they insist on their innocence. Both men were arrested and tortured by Bahraini police. Ramadan, a policeman and father of three, was blindfolded, stripped and beaten with iron rods and threatened with the rape of his family members. Moosa was hung from a ceiling by his wrists for three days and beaten with batons. Both men eventually signed false confessions and have since been tortured further by prison guards in a facility where the UK has trained staff. Despite receiving complaints about their torture and forced confession shortly after arrest, the ombudsman refused to investigate for two years, during which time the men were sentenced to death on the basis of their coerced confessions. Neither man has ever been allowed to meet with a lawyer. After their trial, the ombudsman and the SIU both agreed to finally investigate their torture allegations. The investigations have now been closed, but neither institution has released its findings. Both the ombudsman and the SIU refuse to tell the men or their lawyers whether the investigations confirmed their torture allegations. The SIU eventually recommended a retrial for both men, but their forced confessions, extracted through torture, may now be reintroduced as evidence.

Maher Abbas al-Khabbaz faces imminent execution for alleged terrorism offences, despite insisting on his innocence. He was disappeared by Bahraini police for a week and tortured so severely that he had to be transferred to a military hospital. Police forced Maher to sign a false confession, which was used to secure his death sentence in a patently unfair trial. Despite official complaints from his family and lawyer, the ombudsman has never investigated his torture. The SIU has also yet to investigate his torture, despite receiving a formal complaint from the human rights advocacy group Reprieve, which is assisting him, in late July.

Those defendants were failed every step of the way by Bahraini bodies the UK sees as reform partners. They were tortured by police and prison guards until they made false confessions, and their torture and ill treatment were covered up by torture investigators. Three of them have been illegally executed; the other three could be killed at any time. It is deeply concerning that the UK’s Bahraini partners are responsible for human rights violations as serious as torture and obscuring acts of torture in furtherance of unlawful death sentences. This is a poor result for a reform programme that aimed to improve Bahrain’s human rights record.

Of equal concern is the British Government’s reluctance to issue strong criticism of Bahrain’s human rights abuses, in spite of the growing human rights crisis there. In 2017, after the executions, the Foreign Office’s response was to state that Bahrain was aware of the UK’s opposition to the death penalty. It raised no public concern about the torture or unfair trials. Shortly thereafter the Foreign Office stated that it would not support a joint statement on Bahrain’s human rights record at the next UN Human Rights Council session because the statement would

“not recognise some of the genuine progress Bahrain has made.”

Indeed, the Government have maintained that, while Bahrain

“is by no means perfect and...has...a long way to go in delivering on its human rights commitments...it is a country that is travelling in the right direction. It is making significant reform.”—[Official Report, 20 January 2015;
Vol. 591, c. 66.]

The British Government count the advent of the ombudsman and the SIU among the “reforms”. The Foreign Office continues to describe the ombudsman and the SIU as

“independent human rights oversight bodies” that enjoy “increasing public confidence”, and it has not acknowledged their wrongdoing in the cases of prisoners facing imminent execution. That stands in stark contrast with UN human rights experts, including the special rapporteurs on torture and summary execution and the Committee Against Torture, which have expressed concern that the ombudsman and the SIU are “not independent” and “not effective”, and that their activities result in “little or no outcome.”

There is real concern that the UK’s defence of Bahrain on the global stage has served to deflect international scrutiny of Bahrain’s human rights record at a time when such scrutiny is sorely needed. There is now a false perception among many in the international community that Bahrain’s human rights record has improved thanks to British assistance. Bahrain aggressively promotes that idea. Government-affiliated newspapers there now refer to a supposed British belief that

“Bahrain’s human rights record is flawless.”

Meanwhile, despite mounting violations, states have failed to agree to a single joint statement criticising Bahrain’s human rights record at the UN Human Rights Council in the past three years, and Britain has been unwilling to support such statements.

UK reform assistance programmes are too often cloaked in secrecy. That is particularly true when it comes to the human rights risk assessments that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is obliged to carry out in approving assistance of that nature. The Government’s policy on overseas security and justice assistance—OSJA—is designed to prevent UK involvement in human rights abuses such as the death penalty or torture. The policy sets out a human rights risk assessment process that British officials must follow before approving UK assistance to overseas bodies that might be involved in such abuses.

When the OSJA policy was introduced, the then Foreign Secretary, William Hague, claimed that it would demonstrate the UK’s commitment to

“tackling issues related to human rights in an open and transparent way”.

In practice, however, the Government have adopted a blanket policy of refusing to disclose OSJA assessments, which have been used to approve UK assistance to human rights abusers. Bahrain serves as an example of this. The Foreign Office has refused to disclose any of the OSJA assessments completed in respect of its work in Bahrain, leaving Parliament and the public unable to determine whether the risks of such close co-operation with Bahrain’s security apparatus have been properly considered. It is also unclear whether the assessments, which the Foreign Office initially performed in 2011, have been repeated or reconsidered in the wake of serious and documented violations of international human rights law by the Bahraini Government since then.

The funding of such programmes also lacks transparency. Technical assistance to Bahrain was initially funded largely from the conflict, security and stability fund—the CSSF—a £1.13 billion cross-departmental fund that has received parliamentary criticism for its lack of transparency and accountability. In 2017, the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy described it as “opaque”. This year, both the Independent Commission for Aid Impact and the International Development Committee criticised the fund. ICAI noted that, owing to serious problems with the Government’s human rights risk assessments,

“we do not know if CSSF programming is causing harm”,

as working with security forces accused of human rights violations

“risks legitimising them and their actions, or even becoming complicit in violations.”

The IDC noted that cross-departmental funds of that kind risk being slush funds, the lack of transparency and accountability of which “undermines trust” in their use and

“risks undermining faith in the UK aid brand.”

That is an alarming message, which is very much repeated in the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report, published this morning.

The Foreign Office has shifted the funding stream for those programmes away from the CSSF and to the global Britain fund and the integrated activity fund, about which even less is known. When asked, Ministers have refused to provide details of those funds, including their objectives, safeguards or assessment frameworks, so Parliament has been unable to provide scrutiny or oversight.

It should also be noted that after several years of disclosing basic information about its Bahrain reform projects, the Foreign Office now refuses to disclose such details about its current and future work in Bahrain. In response to freedom of information requests and parliamentary questions, the Foreign Office has refused to tell the public and MPs the true scope of its current and future technical assistance activities in Bahrain, including who the Bahraini recipients are, how much is spent on each programme and which programmes are funded by which funds. It is unclear why human rights reform programmes should be subject to that level of secrecy. By formally shielding the details of such assistance from public view, the Government risk creating the impression that they are unwilling to accept scrutiny or criticism of their activities in Bahrain. That hardly reflects the values of good governance and openness that the Government apparently seek to advance in that country.

The efficacy of the British Government’s reform efforts in Bahrain are in serious doubt. Bahrain, already a repressive autocracy in 2012, has grown only more so since. The country’s only two opposition political societies have been forcibly dissolved. The only independent newspaper in the country has been forcibly closed. A recent constitutional amendment paved the way for military trials of civilians. The UN has described

“a clear pattern of criminalizing dissent” and abhorrent cases of intimidation and reprisals against human rights defenders. Freedom House ranks Bahrain as less free and more repressive of civil and political liberties today than it did in 2012. In terms of press freedom, Bahrain ranks l66th of 180 countries, and the past six years have been marked by torture in detention, unlawful death sentences resulting from unfair trials, and illegal executions. Deprivation of nationality—so-called statelessness—is also now routine. That cannot be the result for which the Foreign Office hoped.

Rather than safeguarding human rights and democracy, the UK’s reform programme has coincided with a brutal assault by the Bahraini Government on the basic rights and freedoms of their citizens. The UK has shielded Bahrain from international censure and avoided criticising arms of the Bahraini Government that have received UK training. That problem is exacerbated by insufficient transparency related to the reform programme’s risk assessments, funding streams, and other details as basic as which arms of Bahrain’s Government will receive UK assistance in future. Given the violations carried out during the course of UK assistance to Bahrain, the British Government cannot keep UK taxpayers in the dark regarding what their money is doing in Bahrain.

The Foreign Office has urgent questions to answer. The UK’s reform efforts in Bahrain have been described as a failure on the basis of the deterioration of Bahrain’s overall human rights records, as well as human rights violations committed by the UK’s reform partners in Bahrain. Does the Minister disagree with that characterisation? If so, on what basis would the Minister describe the UK reform programme in Bahrain as a success? All the violations committed by the UK’s Bahraini reform partners in the cases I have raised have been put to the Foreign Office in writing on several occasions. Does the Minister dispute that those violations took place?

The UN special rapporteur on summary executions deemed the executions of Abbas al-Samea, Sami Mushaima and Ali al-Singace unlawful and an arbitrary deprivation of the right to life. Does the Foreign Office agree with that assessment? If not, why not? Does the Foreign Office accept that confessions extracted through torture must be excluded from criminal proceedings? If so, what steps is the Foreign Office taking to ensure that the special investigations unit and the ombudsman disclose the yet unreleased findings of their investigation into the torture of Mohammed Ramadan and Husain Moosa?

Does the Foreign Office accept the international position that no death sentence can be handed down without strict adherence to fair trial and due process rights, among other safeguards? What assurances has the Foreign Office received from the Bahraini Government that the retrial of Mohammed Ramadan and Husain Moosa will comply with such standards, in particular so that they will not risk a conviction and death sentence on the basis of confessions extracted through torture?

Maher Abbas al-Khabbaz faces imminent execution, and his torture leading to the procurement of a coerced confession has not been investigated by the ombudsman or the SIU, despite official complaints submitted on his behalf. Do the Government accept that they should be extremely concerned that Bahrain may carry out yet another round of unlawful executions without any steps being taken by the relevant authorities or bodies to investigate whether torture was used to secure a death sentence?

Sayed Alwadaei’s family continue to be the subject of reprisals by the Bahraini authorities, not only for his work as a human rights defender but for complaints against the very bodies that have failed adequately to investigate the ill treatment of his loved ones. Do the Government accept that Bahrain’s treatment of Mr Alwadaei and his family amounts to reprisals? Also, what steps are the Government taking to secure the release of Nabeel Rajab and Hassan Mushaima?

The Foreign Office has refused to release any of the OSJA assessments that it has performed in respect of its work in Bahrain. Given the obviously grave concerns about violations of human rights by the UK’s partners in Bahrain, and given the intention of openness and transparency underpinning the OSJA policy, will the Minister commit to releasing those assessments?

The Foreign Office has also refused to release any information on its continuing assistance programmes in Bahrain, or information related to the funds by which the assistance is carried out: the global Britain fund and the integrated activity fund. Will the Minister commit to providing sufficient information about those programmes and funds to ensure proper oversight by the public and by this House?

I am grateful for the assistance I have received from Reprieve and the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy in preparing my remarks, and to their representatives for attending today’s debate. I gave some indication of the areas I would cover in my speech to the Minister’s officials. I understand that it might not be possible to cover all of them in his response today, so I hope he can write to me with answers to any remaining questions.

I know that the Minister cares personally, as I do, about the human rights of people in the Gulf and the UK’s record as a defender of human rights around the world. I fear that both of those are under threat and deserve proper scrutiny and investigation. I am grateful to many colleagues for attending today’s debate. I look forward to their comments and to the responses from the Front Benches.