A host of authoritarian regimes will be entertained in London today at one of the world's largest arms fairs, despite concerns over how readily unpopular dictatorships turned to live ammunition to suppress popular revolutions during this year's Arab Spring.
Invitations to the Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEi) exhibition – an enormous arms fair which opens its doors today at the ExCeL Centre – have been extended to 65 countries.
At least 14 delegations hail from countries that are defined as "authoritarian regimes" by human rights groups who have expressed fears that the British arms industry is returning to a "business as usual" approach towards weapons sales in the Middle East despite the political turmoil sweeping the region.
Arms campaigners have expressed dismay that Bahrain, which has killed scores of mainly Shia citizens since protests broke out in February, has been invited. Earlier this year the British Government was forced to cancel a host of export licences that had allowed the Gulf kingdom to import crowd-control weapons.
Other countries that have been sent invitations include Egypt, Iraq, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, the UAE and Kazakhstan.
Arms campaigners had tried for months to discover which national delegations were being invited to the arms fair through freedom of information requests but they were rebuffed. The government finally published the list yesterday once national newspapers, including The Independent, began to make enquiries last week.
The exhibition,held every two years, features more than 1,300 companies, around half of which are British. The government defends the arms industry as a vibrant and lucrative part of the UK economy. But campaigners say Britain's determination to sell arms abroad is ethically unacceptable.
"The Government appears so embarrassed by the countries it has invited that it has only issued a complete list the day before the exhibition opens," said Kaye Stearman, from the Campaign Against the Arms Trade. "Does the UK public really feel happy about selling arms to undemocratic and abusive countries like these?"
Last night the Foreign Office defended the invitation adding that export licences are under review following the Arab Spring.
"An invitation does not mean that licences will be automatically issued for the goods exhibited," a spokesman said. "We will not issue licences where we judge there is a clear risk that the proposed export might provoke or prolong regional or internal conflicts, or which might be used to facilitate internal repression."
But Oliver Sprague, Amnesty International's arms programme director, countered: "The invitation makes a mockery of any claim that Bahrain's access to arms is being moderated."
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