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Bill Law

UK deal ignores human rights abuses in Bahrain

Zainab al-Khawaja was sentenced to three years not long after having her first child (AFP)

Date of publication: 8 December, 2014

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A deal that will see the establishment in Bahrain of the first permanent UK military base in the Gulf since 1971 may be a coup for the British government. But it is also short-sighted: extremism feeds on oppression.

A day after the Bahraini human rights activist Zainab al-Khawaja was sentenced to three years in jail for tearing up a picture of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, the government of the United Kingdom signed what the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) called a "landmark defence agreement" with his Gulf island kingdom.

The deal will see the establishment of Britain’s first permanent military base in the region since 1971. According to the BBC, most of the £15m ($23m) cost will be paid for by Bahrain.

The agreement was hailed by the Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond as, “one example of our growing partnership with Gulf partners to tackle shared strategic and regional threats”. Clearly ongoing human rights abuses committed

     The national dialogue was designed to fail and fail it did.

by those partners on their own citizens are not considered a shared strategic and regional threat. Which, it can be argued, is hugely short-sighted given that extremism feeds on oppression.

I met Zainab al-Khawaja two years ago when I was making a documentary for the BBC on the first anniversary of the 14 February 2011 protest that saw approximately 50,000 Bahrainis, both Sunni and Shia Muslim, peacefully occupy Pearl Roundabout in the capital Manama.

As the world now knows – to Bahrain’s shame – the protest was put down with brutal force that left dozens dead, hundreds injured and hundreds more incarcerated. While in detention, many were tortured into signing false confessions. At least three were beaten to death. More than 4,000 were arbitrarily sacked from their jobs in the private and public sectors. Nearly all the victims were Shia, the majority population in a kingdom ruled by the Sunni al-Khalifa family. Among them is Zainab’s father Abdulhadi, who was given a life sentence before a military tribunal and remains in Jaw Prison to this day.

This is all a matter of public record, documented by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI). The lead author is the distinguished Egyptian human rights professor Cherif Bassiouni. If you have the time, read the document here. It is a scathing indictment of the Bahraini government and crucially its findings were accepted in full by King Hamad. Here at least the facts cannot be denied by the authorities.

What the Khalifas did next was to promise reform of the police, of the judiciary and the courts and of the political system. They committed to a dialogue with the opposition. With much fanfare, a great deal of money splashed out on PR and the ongoing assistance of the British government, the family now claims to have addressed the many abuses uncovered by the Bassiouni report.

Abuses continue

In reality, the abuses continue. Three weeks ago a prisoner was beaten to death in detention. The interior minister Rashid al-Khalifa called it “irresponsible, unjustified and unacceptable”. Those are almost precisely the words used by the chief of police Tariq Hassan in an interview with me last year when I challenged him about the beating and forced confession of a young Shia, Hussein Ali Marhoon.

To date, despite promises to the contrary, to my knowledge that case, along with others that I have raised over the years, has never been properly investigated.

The national dialogue was designed to fail and fail it did. The opposition wanted meaningful talks on the release of political prisoners, on genuine political reform and on a roadmap to power sharing. The Khalifas prevaricated and postured and in the end delivered on virtually nothing.

The recent election, which was boycotted by the opposition, may have provided useful window dressing for the government narrative but it has only served to entrench division in an already intensely polarised society.

The courts remain unreformed and deeply politicised. These are the same courts of law that gave two officers convicted of beating prisoners to death two years in jail. For the lese majeste crime of tearing a picture of the king in half Zainab al-Khawaja was given three years.

Zainab is tough, determined, provocative and courageous. She has always insisted on the urgency of peaceful protest while calling for democratic reform.

Back in 2012 she told me that the Khalifas were using sectarian tactics to divide and suppress the country. I pushed her to tell me why she refused to sit down with the government. It was she said a matter of trust.

“The people do not believe what the government says. They want change.”

It is that sort of implacability that put her at the front of peaceful protests, that put her in jail for nearly a year, that sees her with multiple charges still hanging over her and facing another three years in jail – a sentence that is particularly harsh as she has just given birth to her first child.

None of this will have rustled the feathers of Hammond who is basking in what could be considered a coup. The British military returns to the Gulf in style after withdrawing ignominiously more than 40 years ago and, best of all, the Bahrainis pick up most of the tab.

It has been more than a quarter of a century since the then foreign secretary, the late Robin Cook, spoke of an ethical foreign policy, one that incorporated Britain’s interests abroad with a commitment to supporting human rights and the pursuit of democratic values. Even at the time it seemed a noble but idealistic agenda doomed to inevitable failure. But at the very least, Cook had the courage to stand up for his beliefs.

I wonder, were he alive today, what would Robin Cook have to say about the case of Zainab al-Khawaja? He would, I believe, speak of her great courage and her commitment to ideals that he shared. And of that defence deal that the FCO is so delighted with? “Shabby, self-serving, demeaning,” I can hear him saying.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

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