5 December 2016 – Rights groups are writing to Prime Minister Theresa May ahead of her visit to Bahrain on Tuesday 6 December urging her to raise human rights as she attends the Gulf Cooperation Council Leaders Summit. The groups warn that claims of reform are disingenuous in light of escalating repression and urge her not relegate human rights to the background.
Downing Street issued a statement on Sunday confirming the visit on Tuesday. Theresa May made a brief reference to human rights in this statement, though subsequent government releases do not repeat the human rights language, instead highlighting the Prime Minister’s desire to “turbo-charge” trade relations with the Gulf.
The summit, an annual meeting of the six GCC states – Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar – is this year held in Manama, Bahrain. The Prime Minister was invited by King Hamad of Bahrain himself, who personally visited Downing Street in October to extend the invitation.
The rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, Reprieve and the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD), urge Theresa May: “The Bahraini authorities’ orchestrated attack on the rights to free expression, assembly and association, has seriously undermined the prospects of a political solution to Bahrain’s domestic unrest.”
“If your government is serious about its commitment to encouraging reform and dialogue, you should use this influence to press the government of Bahrain to put an immediate stop to this repression.”
In particular, the groups urge the Prime Minister to call for the release of arrested human rights defender Nabeel Rajab. Rajab, who since June 2016 has been held in solitary confinement in police custody, is facing up to 15 years in prison on charges of “insulting a neighbouring state”, “spreading rumours in wartime” and “insulting a statutory body”. These charges relate to his criticism of the humanitarian cost of the war in Yemen, which Bahrain is a participant in, and for his documentation of torture in Bahrain’s Central Jau Prison. He faces another charge of “defaming the state” after he wrote a letter to the New York Times in September 2016.
Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, Director of Advocacy, BIRD: “In her last meeting with Bahrain’s King in London, Theresa May failed to speak about human rights abuses and spoke instead of reform in Bahrain, which is simply not happening. If she again fails to speak out on human rights in the Gulf and continued unrest in Bahrain, then it will seem that the Prime Minister’s policies are solely based on financial interests without ethics or morality. Such a policy would be unsustainable and counter-productive and a betrayal of pro-democracy campaigners who languish in prisons for courageously advocating for change.”
Maya Foa, a director of Reprieve, said: “Theresa May must call for the release of innocent death row prisoners in Bahrain, such as Mohammed Ramadan, a father of three who was tortured into making a false confession. The UK government has spent millions training Bahrain’s police, prison guards and watchdogs, and yet these bodies continue to carry out or cover up human rights abuses. Mohammed should be freed to return to his family immediately.”
Since 2012, the UK government has provided technical assistance to Bahrain towards police and judicial reform. However these reforms have stalled, and repression has escalated. Torture, enforced disappearance, arbitrary arrest and unfair trials continue to be the norm in Bahrain, with next to no scope for redress for victims. Since June 2016, the Government of Bahrain has dissolved the largest political party in the country, stripped the citizenship of the country’s most senior Shia cleric, prosecuted human rights activists and prevented them from travel, and placed an entire community under constant police blockade.
Despite these regressions, the UK government shows no sign of changing its support to Bahrain, which it continues to judge has political will for reform. In November, Prince Charles visited Bahrain on the Foreign & Commonwealth Office’s request, where he opened a wing of the new Royal Navy base there, the construction of which has been gifted by the King of Bahrain. While he was there, Ebrahim Sharif, former leader of the National Democratic Action Society, a political party, criticised his visit in an interview with the Associated Press, and was consequently prosecuted for his remarks. Though the charges were later dropped, that case, alongside Nabeel Rajab’s, is emblematic of the disrespect to free speech and human rights in Bahrain, and their impact on the UK-Bahrain relationship.
In June 2016, BIRD conducted an in-depth examination of the UK’s foreign policy in Bahrain, which found it to be “counter-productive” and “unsustainable”.
Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB)
Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR)
Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD)
Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT)
Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR)
European Center for Democracy and Human Rights (ECDHR)
Index on Censorship
Human Rights Watch
Wales PEN Cymru<