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Bahrain — why the silence?

Demanding change in Bahrain is the only fit way to honour the courage of Bahraini human rights activists, writes CLAUDIA WEBBE MP

LAST week, in Parliament, I spoke at an event to mark the 12th anniversary of the 2011 uprising, in the presence of some of Bahrain’s most notable and courageous figures in the human rights movement, including Maryam Al-Khawaja, Dr Alaa Alshehabi and Husain Abdulla.

Much of Bahrain’s history has been characterised by remarkable progressive and egalitarian traditions going back a thousand years — a history that has put the people deeply at odds with the authoritarianism they have been forced to live under in recent decades.

And I paid tribute to the guests, as well as to the journalists, academics, prisoners of conscience and others who have fought to extend that legacy despite torture, beatings, imprisonment and repression.

That repression continues to this day. Political opponents, like Abduljalil al-Singace, remain imprisoned, with 26 currently under death sentences for spurious terrorism offences, of whom almost half say they were tortured to extract confessions.

Torture is used even on children, despite Bahrain’s signature to the UN convention against torture. Others have had their citizenship revoked, the powers of the security services to arrest have been returned and human rights enshrined in law are withheld at the whim of those in power.

Much of the international community has stood by, while others — including Britain — have profited from the sale of the very weapons to Bahrain that were and continue to be used to suppress protest and dissent.

In the build-up to the 2011 demonstrations, the regime in Bahrain tried to intimidate activists — 200,000 people, 40 per cent of the population. What activists were demanding was by no means extreme: a transition to a constitutional monarchy, greater political freedom, and equality for the 70 per cent Shia population.

Yet to put down these entirely peaceful protests, the regime unleashed what even the BBC had to term “brutal” suppression. So violent was this attack on peaceful protesters that Sinn Fein MPs speaking alongside me last week justifiably compared it to the events of Bloody Sunday and the British government’s treatment of independence protesters in Belfast.

And the regime didn’t only use Bahraini police and military in these attacks, but brought in outside troops from Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.

The horrors did not end with the arrests, injuries and deaths inflicted on peaceful protesters — including those attending a funeral for a victim: at least five people were killed by torture and an unknown number suffered while detained by the authorities after the protests.

There is no dispute about that, but as recently as a year ago Democracy for the Arab World Now (Dawn), an organisation founded by Jamal Khashoggi, reported that a culture of impunity continues in Bahrain.

Religious bigotry and political cynicism also come together. Bahrain’s Shia majority Bharani opposition is routinely discriminated against in what the UN Human Rights Commission has described as “systematic harassment.”

This harassment involves arrests, detentions, interrogations and spurious criminal charges, including charges of terrorism simply for gathering peacefully — often on the excuse that Bahraini citizens will be acting as agents of Iran purely because they are Shia. The UN’s human rights experts described this treatment as “groundless accusations used to hide a deliberate targeting of Shias in the country.”

And Bahraini exiles are not safe even here in Britain. Saeed Shehabi and Moosa Mohammed have taken the Bahraini government to court here for infecting their computers with spyware that allowed them to monitor correspondence, access files and even activate webcams and microphones to spy on live conversations.

The Bahraini government attempted to get out of the lawsuit by claiming state immunity — but last week the court threw out the bid and allowed the case to proceed.

While the courts may be doing their job in defending the rights of Bahrainis in Britain, the same cannot be said of our government.

The British government has clearly decided to prioritise weapon sales — Britain lists Bahrain as a core client for arms exports. According to the Campaign Against Arms Trade, Britain has licenced £105 million worth of arms to Bahrain since the pro-democracy Arab Spring started in 2011, and in the last three-year period has licensed at least £82m worth of weapons.

Britain also provides substantial funding and training to Bahrain — through Foreign and Commonwealth Office programmes, and trades munitions with the country.

Only last week, the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy and Human Rights Watch accused the government of a “dangerous whitewash” in a Foreign Office report on Bahrain that they say will embolden human rights abusers, while Freedom of Information requests have shown that the Conservative government continue to send millions of pounds to the Bahraini government through the Gulf Strategy Fund.

The US, meanwhile, seems to have no intention of allowing the inconvenience of democracy and the abuse of human rights to disturb its own arms sales or its major military installation on the island.

I believe we should all oppose the death penalty in all cases, regardless of who is accused, the crime, their guilt or innocence, or the method of execution.

The cases of Bahraini political prisoners Mohamed Ramadhan and Husain Moosa raised additional concerns, given the allegations, including from Amnesty International, that their confessions were obtained under torture and their right to a fair trial was grossly violated and yet they were given death sentences.

We must stand in solidarity with those fighting for democracy and human rights in Bahrain. Nothing less will do.
We must oppose authoritarianism wherever it raises its head.

We must refuse to accept anything less than full respect on the part of Britain’s government for human rights in Bahrain and everywhere else around the world where they are abused.

We must demand action to defend those rights, no matter the cost in trade — and we must demand an end to arms sales to despotic regimes and reject any attempt to whitewash the record of those regimes.

Solidarity in the demand for change in Bahrain, in Britain and wherever else it is needed, is the only way to truly honour the fight and courage shown by those fighting for democracy and human rights in Bahrain as we remember the anniversary of the uprising.

Claudia Webbe is MP for Leicester East. Follow her on Twitter @ClaudiaWebbe.



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