A Bahraini politician who defended the Gulf state's government's torture and jailing of doctors was invited to privately discuss bilateral security cooperation with the UK by a London think-tank last month.
Jamal Fakhro, a senior MP who justified a crackdown on medics who help democracy protesters, was joined at the event by a high-ranking diplomatic adviser to the Bahraini king and the Arab nation’s ambassador to Britain.
During the invitation-only discussion the adviser, Dr Muhammad Abdul Ghaffar, appealed to a panel including Lt Col Thomas Tugendhat, Britain’s Military Assistant to the Chief of the Defence Staff, for “the need to intensify security co-operation” while Bahrain struggles to put down Arab Spring-style demonstrations against the regime.
The British Foreign Secretary William Hague has criticised the round-up of medics as “worrying” and “disproportionate”.
One attendee, who did not wish to be named, said the Bahraini delegation was “stacked” in favour of pro-government voices.
“There was almost no recognition that the violence is ongoing,” they told The Independent. “There was no acknowledgement from either side, from the UK side or the Bahraini side, that the repression if anything is intensifying.”
The private seminar, titled 'British-Bahraini Security Relations: bilateral co-operation in an age of change' and hosted on 22 March by a major UK defence think-tank, The Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI), comes amid increased lobbying and publicity efforts by the Bahraini government to present a positive image of the country.
A spokesman for the Bahrain Justice & Development Movement criticised the event, saying: “Any discussions on the future of Bahrain should involve all parties, both government and opposition.”
The talks, the second of three events arranged together with Derasat, the Bahrain Center for Strategic, International and Energy Studies, were billed by RUSI as “closed-door roundtable” discussions. But quotes of the address given by Dr Ghaffar – who has the ear of the king, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa – emerged via Bahrain’s state media, which lauded the talks as signs of diplomatic collaboration.
The treatment of Bahraini doctors attempting to care for injured protesters caused international outrage when it was exposed last year. Many were later sentenced to 15 years in prison, to the condemnation of Mr Hague along with Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
However, Mr Fakhro, deputy chair of the country’s Shura Council, last summer accused the medics of taking part in a “coup” by helping the protesters. He added that Bahrain “put people who prefer to play politics rather than to be doctors” in jail. “It is unfortunate. We don't want to see them in jail but they have made a mistake,” he said in an interview with Al Jazeera.
The attendance of Lt Col Tugendhat follows criticism of the UK – a leading arms exporter and key strategic defence ally to the Middle Eastern island nation – by human rights groups for its less hardline attitude to the kingdom compared to other regimes facing Arab Spring protests. They claim that Britain’s trade and military links with Bahrain have helped to ensure that it is protected from external pressure.
Dr Ghaffar also used the event to call for more financial investment in Bahrain by Britain. “With regard to Bahraini-British relations, economic cooperation is an essential pillar of cooperation,” he told the group. “Around 520 British companies have their branches in Bahrain and around 88 British companies in banking, oil, insurance and investments are based in Bahrain.
"In its bilateral relations with Bahrain, Britain should take into consideration that over the last decade, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states have consolidated their regional and economic cooperation. The region produces more than 30 per cent of the world's oil needs and 14 per cent of world gas production and recent studies in the field of energy, expects world oil demand to double by 2030. In terms of trade with Britain, the GCC is the seventh largest importer of British goods, amounting to £15bn; a figure which exceeded the United Kingdom’s total exports to India and China together in 2010. During the same year, Bahrain’s total trade value with the United Kingdom reached around $337m.”
Among the other British attendees was the former ambassador to Bahrain, Sir Harold Walker.
An MOD spokesman said: “It is patently ridiculous to question the attendance of a military officer at a respected independent defence thinktank event. The British Military has personnel stationed in Bahrain so it is prudent for the MoD to be informed of the thinking of Bahraini officials who attend this event. The officer [Lt Col Tugendhat] made no contribution to the debate since the policy towards Bahrain is a Foreign Office matter.”
A spokesman for RUSI said: “RUSI is an independent thinktank that organises a large number of conferences, seminars and round-tables about a variety of international security issues. Most of these are sensitive, and some are controversial, but the Institute prides itself on its ability to act as a platform for an exchange of ideas and broader ‘track-two’ contacts between government officials, academics, journalists and other practitioners in the field.” Sir Harold Walker declined to comment.
He added that all those who attended did so "in their private, rather than official capacity," and that its "academic engagement programme implies no endorsement of any government, or any characterisation of a conflict".