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UK accused of advising Bahrain on 'whitewashing' custody deaths

Emails obtained by Reprieve showed Bahraini police liaising with UK experts on how best to discuss deaths in custody with family members
Bahraini police have been accused of numerous human rights abuses (AFP)

UK investigators taught Bahraini counterparts how to "whitewash" deaths in custody, a human rights campaign group said on Thursday.

The claims by Reprieve follow previous accusations levelled at the British government of waging a behind-the-scenes PR offensive to water down criticism of Bahraini human rights abuses at the UN.

Reprieve said that the training was part of a multi-million-pound foreign office aid programme with the Gulf kingdom. 

Documents obtained by Reprieve showed that Bahraini police had consulted with UK experts in Northern Ireland on how best to handle police complaints.

A Bahraini official had also asked his British counterpart on how best to tell “bereaved families that officers will not be prosecuted, after a loved one had died in custody.”

In one email correspondence obtained by Reprieve via a freedom of information request, a Bahraini police official said: "Another topic for discussion which was raised is your use of family liaison officers in maintaining the confidence of the deceased’s family in the investigation, and how they deliver difficult messages for example where prosecution is not being recommended. [Name redacted] has asked if possible could the case of [one line redacted] be discussed? As this was an interesting case as your office vindicated the actions of the officer.”

A company owned by the Northern Ireland government called NI-CO and the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office had also organised a fact-finding mission to Northern Ireland by a delegation from the Bahraini police. 

Reprieve last month revealed that NI-CO was being paid £1m to work with the Bahraini interior ministry. 

The Bahraini visit focused on investigations involving deaths or serious injuries caused by police and how to liaise with families in these cases, according to emails obtained by Reprieve.

According to Reprieve, the Bahraini police delegation was from the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), an organisation that is meant to bring prosecutions against officers suspected of abuse. 

Human Rights Watch has criticised the SIU’s performance, saying that in the last three years, 138 abuse allegations were referred to the SIU, but it only successfully prosecuted one torture case.

Barely two months before the study visit, the SIU had also announced that the police officers who allegedly tortured France24 journalist Nazeeha Saeed during the 2011 protests would not be prosecuted.

They claimed that there was “insufficient evidence”, despite her providing three medical reports of her injuries.

Maya Foa, who is a director of Reprieve said: “It is shocking that Britain paid for Bahrain’s police to learn how to whitewash deaths in custody. Bahrain’s police have tortured innocent people like Mohammed Ramadan into confessing falsely to crimes that carry the death penalty, and intimidated relatives who try to complain." 

She also added: "Meanwhile, the UK taxpayer is paying Bahrain’s police to learn how to tell bereaved families that officers won’t be prosecuted after deaths in custody. The FCO needs to urgently suspend NI-CO’s work with Bahrain.”

Last month Reprieve also revealed that the foreign office funded training for hundreds of prison guards working at Bahrain's death row jail.

The group also said that at least one innocent man faces imminent execution after being tortured into making a false confession.

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