A member of Bahrain's ruling family was entertained at the Foreign Office as the international community condemned the Gulf state for its brutal repression of political opponents, it emerged yesterday.
Lt Gen Sheikh Rashid bin Abdullah al-Khalifa, Bahrain's Interior Minister, held private talks with British officials last Wednesday at the same time as more than 20 countries issued a United Nations statement expressing concern about the human rights situation in the country – which Britain refused to sign.
Briefing documents reveal that the Bahrain minister was in the country to learn about policing in Northern Ireland. The British government, which is a "long-standing ally" of Bahrain, is "keen to share lessons learnt from our experience in Northern Ireland", the documents say.
The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, was not present but the junior Foreign Office minister Lord Howell – George Osborne's father-in-law – attended the talks. Mr Hague was criticised yesterday for failing to condemn Bahrain's treatment of opponents since the Arab Spring last year.
A group of MPs from all parties was invited to the talks but was not allowed into the Foreign Office because of a separate security issue. However the group's chairman, the Conservative MP Conor Burns, defended the invitation, insisting open dialogue with the Bahraini government about policing and human rights was essential.
The meeting will fuel the row over Britain's response to the Bahrain situation after the Queen hosted King Hamad al-Khalifa at Windsor as part of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations. There are also concerns about senior members of the ruling family attending the Olympics.
Present at the talks were John Yates, the former Met assistant commissioner acting as a security adviser to Bahrain, four senior Bahraini officials and the country's ambassador to Britain, Alice Samaan.
An FCO document circulated before the meeting said the Interior Minister was "keen to learn from the UK, especially our experience of policing in a sectarian environment". It added: "[Her Majesty's Government's] policy is that Bahrain is a long-standing ally who has embarked on a process of reform. We want to help them along this path for the long-term stability of the kingdom and wider region. It is of course important that Bahrain solves the situation itself, but if the UK can be of any help then let us know. "
Britain welcomed the fact that the Gulf state set up the Independent Commission of Inquiry into the actions of security forces during the protest crackdown. The UN has criticised the slow pace of the inquiry.
The UN has expressed deep concern at the Bahrain situation since protests began in early 2011. At a session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, taking place at the same time as the Whitehall meeting, 27 countries, including 19 from the EU, signed a joint statement expressing their concern.
"We are particularly concerned about the consequences faced by those who protested for democratic change in a peaceful manner," the statement said. "We call upon the Bahraini government to fully respect their rights of freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association and especially to ensure the protection of Human Rights Defenders."
Mr Burns said yesterday that MPs on the UK-Bahrain All-Party Parliamentary Group raised human rights concerns whenever they met Bahrain representatives whether from the government or opposition figures. "Bahrain does have a process of reform. We would like them to be going further and faster but at least they are doing something, unlike other governments in the region."
The MP and former Labour Foreign Office minister Denis MacShane said: "This is a sad example of William Hague's double standards on human rights. He is highly selective which regimes that torture, kill or crush democracy he chooses to criticise. It would be better if the FCO rolled up its red carpet for this regime until it comes to terms with the need for dialogue and democracy."
An FCO spokesman said: "Bahrain has embarked on a process of reform. We agree with much of the substance of the [UN] statement and we regularly raise our concerns and encourage improvements in Bahrain's human rights record. However, we do not believe that the situation in Bahrain is comparable with the situation in the other countries raised under this item, such as Syria. Progress has been made in a number of areas but clearly much more needs to be done, and the UK, as a longstanding ally, is supporting Bahrain on their path of reform."
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