Strange ethics that makes friends with a state that tortures children

Click to follow
The Independent Online
MINISTERS have maintained close contact with their counterparts in Bahrain despite the country's record of torture and extra-judicial killings.

The warm relations between Britain and the Gulf state raise fresh questions about the new "ethical dimension" which Robin Cook has introduced into Britain's foreign policy.

Defence ministers meet regularly through a body called the Bahrain British Defence Committee. Britain has 85 defence staff based in Bahrain and members of the country's armed forces are invited to defence colleges in this country for training.

Bahrain was among a number of countries whose governments were invited to the Farnborough arms fair this year. In the 12 months after Labour won last year's general election, 24 export licences were granted for weapons to Bahrain. Exactly what has been sent is not clear but categories of arms approved for sale include the groups which cover small arms, armoured vehicles and surveillance systems.

A European Parliament resolution has called on EU member states to "refrain from supplying arms or security support to the Government of Bahrain".

The country, which is a former British colony, has maintained close links with the UK in many ways. For years, the head of security in Bahrain was a Scot, Ian Henderson, who was responsible for prisons. He has now retired and another British ex-serviceman, Colonel Thomas Bryan, has taken his place. The Minister of the Interior recently appointed a British solicitor, David Jump, as his legal adviser on human rights issues.

If Nato had gone ahead with bombing raids on Iraq this autumn, British Tornados would have taken off from an air base in Bahrain, where they are stationed.

The Foreign Office minister with responsibility for the Middle East, Derek Fatchett, told the House of Commons last year that campaigners for democracy in Bahrain were "moderate people with a moderate set of demands". He also raised the issue of human rights in meetings with the Bahraini ambassador and other senior figures.

However, close links which existed under the Conservative government still continue. As we report on page one today, a lobbyist, Omar Al Hassan, now administers the All-Party Bahrain Group in the House of Commons and recently took nine MPs there on a trip.

Although there have been some violent terrorist attacks in Bahrain, most pro-democracy campaigners say they would not condone such acts. They want a restoration of the country's partially elected assembly, which was dissolved in 1975, but a petition signed by 25,000 people has brought little change.

Bahrain has signed the UN Convention Against Torture, but brutal treatment is still used to extract confessions from suspected dissidents. The US state department has estimated that in 1996 more than 3,000 people were detained, but only 117 were convicted. Some 1,500 of them were still in detention at the end of the year.

Many of those held are children - for example two 12-year-old boys were arrested, beaten up and released in September this year. Their parents were not told where they were. In July a 22-year-old, Nooh Khalil Abdulla al-Nooh, was arrested. Two days later his mutilated body was handed back to his family, and he was buried next to Saeed al-Iskafi, who suffered the same fate three years earlier.

Human rights abuses in Bahrain have been documented by Amnesty International, the US State Department, the Red Cross and the Human Rights Watch group.

Mr Al Hassan, the lobbyist for Bahrain who runs the Gulf Centre for Strategic Studies, said 41 deaths in four years was no worse than the records of Britain, Ireland or the United States.

"They were really killed by terrorists. They do everything against their country. They are co-operating with extremists in Iran and other places," he said.

A spokesman for the Bahrain Freedom Movement said Britain's close relations with Bahrain should be used to apply pressure.

"So far we have seen some good statements from the Foreign Office and especially Derek Fatchett, but apart from that no tangible action has been recorded," he said.

Earlier this year Bahrain's ambassador to the UK, Abdul Aziz Muburak al Khalifa, engaged the British lobbyist Sir Tim Bell to co-ordinate protests to the Labour government after it granted asylum to three Bahraini dissidents.

In a memo to the ambassador, Sir Tim said the Foreign Office was "acutely embarrassed" by the Home Office decision but could do little about it.

He suggested the Bahrainis should use all their contacts to seek meetings with influential figures, including the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, and the Downing Street advisers Roger Liddle and John Holmes.

While the decision could not be reversed, the Government should be told how Bahrain had responded to Britain's more ethical foreign policy by opening up dialogue with organisations including the Red Cross and Amnesty International.

A new, more open approach had also included the organisation of fact- finding trips to Bahrain by British MPs "which have been positively received by all involved", the memo said.