Human rights campaigners have accused Boris Johnson of “fuelling repression” by meeting with Bahrain’s crown prince and prime minister amid the Gulf state’s “systematic” use of torture to suppress dissent.
The UN high commissioner for human rights said earlier this year that the country was in “violation of international law” over its treatment of prisoners.
There have also been allegations of other human rights breaches, including evidence that detained children as young as 13 are beaten and threatened with rape.
Jeed Basyouni, from the organisation Reprieve, said: “The UK government often says how proud it is of its partnership with Bahrain. So why is it slipping the Bahraini crown prince in through the back door without announcing the visit?
“The truth is, British government officials know that the Bahraini authorities systematically use torture and death sentences to suppress dissent, and in spite of this the UK provides generous support to the very bodies implicated in these abuses. This support is out of step with British values, and should be withdrawn until the Bahraini government stops using torture confessions to sentence political prisoners to death.”
Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa’s visit follows a meeting between Priti Patel, the home secretary, and General Shaikh Rashid bin Abdullah Al Khalifa, Bahrain’s interior minister, last month. The interior minister is blamed for the recent torture of political prisoners.
Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, director of the human rights group Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, called for human rights issues to be central to the UK’s negotiations of any future trade deal.
Mr Alwadaei said: “The last time I protested against a visit to 10 Downing Street by Bahraini royals, members of my family were thrown in prison, so I understand why Boris Johnson held this meeting in secret.
“If Britain is truly seeking a free trade deal with a regime that holds political prisoners as hostages, tortures children and throws even mild critics in jail, it is imperative that human rights issues are at the core of any future trade relationship.”
Additionally, the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) underlined the UK’s sale of weapons to Bahrain: the UK has licensed £120m worth of arms to the regime since the 2011 uprising, including £49m worth of aircraft equipment and almost £40m worth of small arms and ammunition.
Andrew Smith, spokesperson for the CAAT, said: “The Bahraini regime has a long and shameful history of atrocities and abuses. The images of Boris Johnson welcoming one of its most senior members into Downing Street is sickening. It will be regarded as a clear and unambiguous sign of support by the dictatorship, while undermining the work of human rights defenders.
“Pro-democracy campaigners have endured many years of abuse at the hands of the Bahraini authorities. Regardless of the torture and violence that has been inflicted, Johnson and his predecessors have provided an uncritical political and military support for the Bahraini royal family. Cozy meetings and photoshoots on the steps of Downing Street are a key part of that support.”
He added that the prime minister’s vision of “global Britain” appears to entail “talking about the importance of democracy while fuelling repression and empowering abusers”.
A spokesperson for the Bahraini government said that it has “a zero-tolerance policy towards mistreatment of any kind” and that it has installed has “internationally recognised human rights safeguards”.
The statement said: “A range of institutional and legal reforms have been implemented in close collaboration with international governments and independent experts, including the establishment of a wholly independent Ombudsman – the first of its kind in the region – which will fully and independently investigate any allegation of mistreatment.
“Freedom of opinion and expression – which includes the right to protest – are expressly protected under Bahrain’s constitution (Article 23). No one can be prosecuted for such activities. The government will only take action – as in all countries – when conduct strays into violence or seeks to incite violence or hatred.”
“Furthermore, the National Institute for Human Rights – created with the assistance of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights – has independent oversight of promoting and protecting human rights within the Kingdom. In line with international norms, where arrests take place and convictions are sought due to clear breaches of the law, these rely on the process of an independent court system which upholds the legal rights of all individuals throughout.”
A Downing Street spokesperson said the two leaders had “reflected on the close and historic partnership between the UK and Bahrain” and agreed to further strengthen “economic, security and diplomatic cooperation” between the countries.
“The leaders discussed the global effort against Covid-19 and support for international initiatives to combat the pandemic, including Covax. They also spoke about regional security issues and defence collaboration, and the prime minister commended the Bahraini government’s steps to normalise relations with Israel,” the statement said.
The spokesperson added that Mr Johnson looked forward “to deepening cooperation on green technology and the transition to renewable energy” with Bahrain.
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