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Bahrain: UK MPs slam government for prioritising trade above human rights

MPs question how Britain can continue to 'lovebomb' Gulf kingdom accused of abuses and detaining political prisoners
A Bahraini man walks past portraits of men reportedly detained after attending anti-government protests, displayed behind a mosque in the village of Diraz (AFP)

A group of British MPs condemned the government's "blind eye" over human rights abuses in Bahrain and called for an end of funding to the kingdom during a backbench debate on Thursday.

Ten years after the kingdom's 2011 pro-democracy uprising - and the Bahraini government's subsequent crackdown - the MPs expressed exasperation over the UK's staunch support for its longtime ally given the ongoing repression in the country.

Their criticism comes as 1,400 political prisoners, including many imprisoned for their roles in the uprising, remain behind bars, accusing authorities of unfair trials and torture.

The UK has financially supported Bahrain for a decade, including through the opaquely run Gulf Strategy Fund. In August, the government disclosed that the fund is supporting Bahrain's interior ministry and four other bodies which oversee detainees.

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'While the United Kingdom sends more and more taxpayers cash to Bahrain, the oppression and detention of prisoners in Bahrain continues'

- Brendan O'Hara MP

"After a decade of Britain love-bombing Bahrain, there has been no improvement in their behaviour," said Scottish National Party MP Brendan O'Hara, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Democracy and Human Rights in the Gulf, who raised the debate.

“While the United Kingdom sends more and more taxpayers cash to Bahrain, the oppression and detention of prisoners in Bahrain continues."

The discussion, O'Hara noted, coincided with the 190th day of a hunger strike by Abduljalil al-Singace, perhaps Bahrain's most prominent political prisoner, who has been in prison since 2011 following his leading role in the pro-democracy movement.

His conviction for plotting to overthrow the government was widely condemned, including by then-UK Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt, who expressed "deep dismay" in 2012 when Singace's sentence and those of 12 other activists involved in protests were upheld.

In July 2021, after Bahraini authorities confiscated an academic book he had been working on while in prison, Singace started his hunger strike. In October, British MPs sent an open letter to Foreign Secretary Liz Truss asking her to intervene in his case.

"I'm sorry to say nothing has been done and the government has remained largely silent," O'Hara said.

Tory rebuttal

Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael called for the Bahraini Minister of Interior Sheikh Rashid bin Abdullah al-Khalifa to be placed under Magnitsky sanctions “for his role in overseeing appalling human rights violations and a culture of impunity”.

Other MPs highlighted the fact that the UK is on the eve of a post-Brexit, free trade deal with the Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes Bahrain.

“This is clearly not a partisan, party political matter. It’s clear that standing up for human rights for political prisoners in Bahrain and beyond transcends party politics," said Labour MP Bambos Charalambous, shadow Middle East minister.

"It's not a matter of right or left, 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 a free trade deal with Bahrain, then when will we be?"

Meanwhile, Tory MP Bob Stewart - who visited Bahrain in November on a five-day, £5,349 trip paid for by the Bahraini Ministry of Foreign Affairs - twice asserted during the hourlong debate that there were no political prisoners in the kingdom.

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"According to the Bahrain constitution, freedom of opinion and expression are expressly protected and no person can be prosecuted for such activities," Stewart said. "I am certain that nobody is in prison simply for disagreeing with the regime."

Others asked Middle East Minister James Cleverly, who was present, whether the government had key indicators that showed how effective its investment in Bahrain has been.

At the end, Cleverly responded to the MPs with what he said would be an "alternative and more balanced viewpoint", arguing it was better for the UK to engage with its longtime ally than criticise from the sidelines.

"I can only suggest that if [O'Hara] thinks we’ve been silent, it’s more an indication that perhaps he hasn’t been listening, because I will highlight where the UK government has indeed brought these things to the international attention," Cleverly said.

Cleverly offered several examples of ways in which he believed Bahrain was reforming, including by introducing legislation offering alternatives to incarceration; the prosecution or disciplining of more than 90 security personnel by oversight bodies supported by the UK, and "steps taken" to develop an inaugural human rights plan.

'The message that came loud and clear from the minister that everything they have done for the last 10 years may have failed, but it’s business as usual'

- Brendan O'Hara MP

"I have - and will - continue to make these points directly to our ministerial counterparts in Bahrain and, because we enjoy a strong working relationship with them, I know those Bahrain ministers listen to us," he said.

He concluded by saying that "those currently under detention have been tried and convicted of crimes and sentenced under Bahraini law, a point that my honorable and galant friend" - he said referencing Stewart - "has highlighted".

O'Hara responded, saying he was "deeply disappointed" that Cleverly hadn't named any of the political prisoners and that he and other MPs would continue to "shine a light where a light does not want to be shone".

"The message that came loud and clear from the minister that everything they have done for the last 10 years may have failed, but it’s business as usual," he said.

MEE sought a comment from Bahrain's embassy in London, but did not receive a response by the time of publication.

Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, director of the Bahrain Insitute for Rights and Democracy (Bird), said it was brilliant to see cross-party MPs raise the plight of Bahraini political prisoners. 

"MPs were right to denounce the culture of impunity presided over by top Bahraini officials, including Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid AlKhalifa, and I echo their call for Magnitsky sanctions to be applied," he said. 

"The government must change their disastrous policy toward Bahrain, which has clearly failed and is no longer sustainable.”

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