Britain must listen to Bahraini human rights defenders

Britain must listen to Bahraini human rights defenders
Comment: Theresa May's new government needs to start listening to Bahraini HRDs, and end support for a violent dictatorship, until independent investigations start and torture stops, writes Erin Kilbride.
7 min read
12 Aug, 2016
Bahrain's regime rearrested human rights defender Nabeel Rajab and put him in solitary confinement [Getty]

In late July, the UK Foreign Office published an update report on human rights in Bahrain. From opening line to closing paragraph, the report implies the FCO is either being misled by its Gulf ally, or is knowingly minimising Bahrain's abuses. Bahraini human rights defenders (HRDs) suspect it's a bit of both.

The report begins: "There has been a mixed picture on human rights in Bahrain between January and June 2016," standing in stark contrast to what HRDs are calling "the worst and most violent crackdown since 2011". The FCO's review continues with a largely upbeat story of reform in a kingdom that became famous in 2011 for crushing peaceful dissent, killing protestors, torturing medics and imprisoning human rights defenders for life following military trials.

Five years on, there's nothing "mixed" about the human rights situation in Bahrain. Consistent and credible reports of torture still emerge from detention centers. Parents continue to rush children to secret medical clinics after riot police dispel protests with bird shot pellets because public hospitals are still too dangerous.

Prisons are over capacity, and minors are still held in cells with adults. Human rights defender Abdulhadi al-Khawaja is still in prison serving a life sentence after a military trial.

For years, human rights defenders, activists, lawyers and international rights groups have warned of a "worsening" crackdown on human rights and the shrinking number of advocates left in the country and out of prison who can fight against it.

This summer, though you wouldn't know it from reading the FCO report, that crackdown happened.

In the past two months, the al-Khalifa regime rearrested human rights defender Nabeel Rajab and placed him in solitary confinement. It forced activist Zainab al-Khawaja into exile after threatening her (and her child) with re-arrest and indefinite detention.

More than a dozen HRDs have had travel bans imposed on them, some on their way to speak at the UN in Geneva. The government stripped the citizenship of 53 people, including the country's foremost Shia cleric, Sheikh Isa Qassim. Last month, a Bahraini court officially dissolved the country's largest political opposition group. 

The report implies the FCO is either being misled by its Gulf ally, or is knowingly minimising Bahrain's abuses

One week later, the UK came out with an FCO report that took five paragraphs to raise its first concern. The second line over the document however, praised the government of Bahrain for "continu[ing] to take steps to implement its human rights and political reform agenda".

Since 2011, British taxpayers have sent more than £2million to the Kingdom as part of that "reform agenda," a collaborative effort that both governments love to tout.

The FCO report boasts of the UK's support for "independent human rights and oversight institutions such as the National Institution of Human Rights (NIHR), Ministry of Interior Ombudsman, Prisoners' and Detainees' Rights Commission (PDRC) and Special Investigations Unit (SIU), who provide independent oversight of police behaviour and detention standards."

To quickly sum up, this means UK tax payers are sending £2million to Bahrain to fund:

  • An allegedly independent watchdog (the National Institute for Human Rights) whose members - playing fast and loose with the word "independent," - are appointed by an unelected monarch;
  • a police ombudsman that fails to investigate torture claims, including of a man who has been sentenced to death;
  • the Prisoners' and Detainees' Rights Commission, many members of which are from the same public prosecution office that sentenced human rights defenders to prison for their peaceful activism;
  • and a Special Investigations Unit that refused to file criminal charges for the torture of France24 journalist Nazeeha Saeed, citing a "lack of evidence", despite three independent medical reports and Nazeeha identifying the perpetrators. 

Millions of pounds of British tax payer money have been spent on improving the image, rather than the conduct of the UK's authoritarian ally. Twitter users now refer ironically to #BahrainStyleReforms when they post photos of arrested human rights defenders, riot police shooting teargas at children and tortured bodies laying in morgues.

In April, MP Tobias Ellwood told the House of Commons that British embassy officials were in "direct contact with the ombudsman," and assured the FCO that there were "no allegations of mistreatment or torture" in the case of a man now sentenced to death. Despite prior and subsequent evidence of torture provided by local and international rights groups, the FCO maintained all was well - a line they've largely stuck to in their July report.

The document references the number of abuse reports received by the ombudsman, but pays no mind to whether or not a subsequent investigation was carried out. Human rights defender and lawyer Mohamed al-Tajer, who has represented hundreds of victims of state abuse in Bahrain, told Front Line Defenders "the ombudsman will receive reports of torture, as the FCO stated, but if he won't investigate the abuse, what is the point?"

In the years following Bahrain's revolution, many of us advocating for reform used to highlight the reported $32million the monarchy spent on public relations firms, to steady its crumbling reputation.

'The UK can't reasonably expect to fix a criminal justice system controlled so tightly by a dictatorship' [Ali Abduleman - HRD blogger]

Today, (though you'd be hard pressed to find evidence Bahrain cares much for its image anymore), it seems UK taxpayers are funding the regime's PR, funneling millions into cosmetic reforms that human rights defenders say have not ended prison abuse.

Many HRDs say the time has come for the UK to pull technical assistance and funding from Bahrain's prison system, which cannot reasonably be viewed as on the road to reform.

Bahraini blogger and human rights defender Ali Abdulemam, who fled Bahrain in 2011 and now lives in the UK, told Front Line Defenders the UK can't reasonably expect to fix a criminal justice system controlled so tightly by a dictatorship:

"The best way to support rights in Bahrain is to pressure the government, stop arms sales, and take away the political backing - not pump money into a government institution. You can't reform the body if the head is beyond reform."

Sayed Ahmed al-Wadaei of the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy says the types of support UK provides to Bahrain need to correspond to meaningful steps taken by the government. "The UK can fund an ombudsman," Wadaei explained, "if and when Bahrain takes steps to ratify the optional protocol on torture, for example. Victims must have an independent mechanism to report to if the domestic justice system fails."

Some UK representatives have echoed the calls of Bahraini HRDs, criticising their government's blind support for a dictatorship that has proven itself unworthy. Labour's justice spokesman, Andy Slaughter, who successfully advocated for an end to UK support for Saudi's abusive prisons, told the Guardian in February:

The UK's current mode of operation is to liaise with and fund the Bahraini government

"Once again we see the British government giving aid and comfort to a regime with an appalling human rights record. The Bahraini authorities stand accused of abuse of legal process, including forced confessions and use of torture."

The UK's current mode of operation is to liaise with and fund the Bahraini government. This means when the al-Khalifa's don't cooperate - if a UK-funded ombudsman refuses to investigate torture, for example - the UK is left looking powerless at best and responsible for ongoing torture at worst. UK calls for human rights reform in Bahrain usually come in the form of monetary gifts, and it's time for that to end.

Britain's new leaders inherited an embarrassing Bahrain legacy from David Cameron's government: plans for a naval base in a Gulf dictatorship, arms sales totaling more than £76million and the ongoing waste of taxpayer money to create government-aligned "human rights" bodies.

Bahrain, in turn, inherited from Britain a criminal justice system trained and known for torture. To avoid the mistakes of Prime Ministers past, Theresa May's new government needs to start listening to Bahraini HRDs, and end support for a violent dictatorship until independent investigations start and torture stops.

Erin Kilbride is the Media Coordinator at Front Line Defenders in Dublin. She previously worked as a journalist in Bahrain, as Gulf & Yemen Editor at, and with Iraqi refugee populations in the US. Her work has appeared in a range of media outlets including Voice of America, Al Jazeera, Think Progress, Middle East Eye and New Internationalist.

Follow her on Twitter: @neo_chlo

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.