I beg to move,
That this House has considered the ongoing detention of Bahraini political prisoners.
First, I put on record my appreciation to the Backbench Business Committee for agreeing to this important debate on the ongoing detention of Bahraini political prisoners. In particular I thank all Members who will contribute this afternoon, given the speed at which today’s debate was arranged. Although arranged in haste, the debate is very timely, coinciding as it does with the 190th day that one of Bahrain’s most prominent political prisoners, Dr Abduljalil al-Singace, has refused food in protest at his treatment in the notorious Jau prison, where he has spent more than a decade for his part in supporting the pro-democracy Arab spring uprising in 2011. Dr al-Singace is one of an estimated 1,400 political prisoners being held in Jau prison, 500 of whom have been sentenced to 20 years or more. I will speak more about Dr al-Singace and other political prisoners later.
Let me declare an interest at the outset: I am the Scottish National party spokesperson on international human rights, as well as being the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on democracy and human rights in the Gulf.
I have very close contacts with Bahrain, and it would dispute those figures for the number of people utterly and completely. Bahrain does not have political prisoners; they are all prisoners who are there because they have committed a crime.
I absolutely understand the right hon. Gentleman’s very close connection to Bahrain. Indeed, he has just returned from a trip to Bahrain, as was declared in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I look forward to his contribution, and he is at liberty to explain to the House exactly why the rest of the world is wrong and there are no political prisoners following the uprising in 2011.
I think the Father of the House hits the nail squarely on the head, and I look forward to his contribution.
I applied for the debate not just so that Members across the House could mark the events of February 2011, but to ensure that those pro-democracy campaigners who demand freedom and political reform are not forgotten. It is of equal importance that the debate gives us the opportunity to question the Government and ask once again why they continue to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses in Bahrain while sending millions of pounds of taxpayers’ cash to the Gulf state via the highly secretive Gulf strategy fund.
On 14 February 2011, having been inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, tens of thousands of Bahraini citizens took to the streets to demand political reform. Rather than engaging with their citizens, the Bahraini Government responded with a brutal crackdown, even going so far as to call in a Saudi-led intervention force from neighbouring states to help crush what had been hitherto an overwhelmingly peaceful uprising. In that crackdown, at least 19 protesters were killed, some tortured to death while in state custody, while thousands more were rounded up and detained by the authorities, with the leaders sentenced to life in jail. By any standard, the response of the state was brutal, uncompromising and wholly disproportionate. More than a decade on, Bahrain had one of the most repressed civil societies in the world, with no political opposition and without a free press. Recently, Reporters Without Borders ranked Bahrain 168th of the 180 countries in the world press freedom index. It was no surprise to find that The Economist placed Bahrain 150th of 167 countries in its 2020 global democracy index.
Despite the brutal repression of the pro-democracy movement and the continued suppression of basic human rights in Bahrain, the UK remains one of its staunchest allies, making a mockery of any claim we may have had to be pursuing an ethical foreign policy, because states that pursue such a policy do not bankroll regimes that stand accused of widespread human rights abuses, including the use of torture and the execution of political dissidents. I suspect that the Minister knows that already. I am afraid that the old excuse of, “We are leading by example”, or, “Things would be so much worse if we weren’t there”, will simply no longer wash, because after a decade of Britain love-bombing Bahrain, there has been no improvement in its behaviour.
I will give the UK Government this, though: they are nothing if not loyal to their friends. Even when they were slashing humanitarian aid to help eradicate hunger and disease in some of the poorest countries on the planet, they actually increased the amount of money they gave to their allies in the Gulf, including Bahrain. A freedom of information request by the Scottish National party revealed that the Gulf strategy fund was increased by 145% last year. That came in the same year that Amnesty International said:
“The Bahraini state has crushed the hopes and expectations raised by the mass protests of 10 years ago, reacting with a brutal crackdown over the subsequent decade that has been facilitated by the shameful silence of Bahrain’s Western allies, especially the UK and the US.”
While the UK sends more and more taxpayers’ cash to Bahrain, the old repression and detention of political prisoners in Bahrain continues. Arguably, the most urgent of these cases is that of Dr al-Singace, the 59-year-old academic and human rights activist who was initially detained in 2010, having returned from speaking at a conference in the House of Lords. He was subsequently released but was re-arrested in 2011, in the aftermath of the popular uprising. Following his detention, Dr al-Singace, a professor of engineering who is disabled and requires either crutches or a wheelchair, was subjected to physical and mental torture, as well as sexual abuse, at the hands of the Bahraini authorities. He was charged with plotting to overthrow the Government and given a life sentence.
The verdict was immediately condemned by human rights activists and non-governmental organisations, with the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists condemning the Bahraini Government for
“a stunning disregard for due process and basic human rights.”
The French NGO Reporters Without Borders declared that his only crime was
“freely expressing opinions contrary to those of the government”.
He has languished in jail for more than a decade, and in July, exactly 190 days ago, he went on hunger strike in protest at the Bahraini authorities’ confiscation of an academic book he had been working on for the past four years of incarceration. In October last year, 46 parliamentarians signed an open letter to the Foreign Secretary asking her to intervene on behalf of Dr al-Singace and his family, but I am sorry to say that nothing has been done and the Government have remained largely silent.
Of course, there are many, many more political prisoners being held in Bahrain’s jails simply for voicing or organising their opposition to the regime. Another case worthy of highlighting is that of 74-year-old Hassan Mushaima, the former leader of Bahrain’s opposition, who is also serving a life sentence, having been jailed in the aftermath of the pro-democracy uprising in 2011. He, too, has been subject to torture and now suffers from medical complications resulting from it. Just before Christmas I met his son Ali, who is working tirelessly to secure his father’s unconditional release. In December, Ali held his own hunger strike outside the Bahraini embassy here in London for 23 days, demanding the release of all political prisoners, including his father.
I know how grateful Ali was for the support shown by Members of this House, particularly those who visited him in the freezing cold days in December. It was meeting Ali on the steps of the Bahraini embassy that was in many ways the catalyst for today’s debate, because I promised him that I would seek to raise his father’s case on the Floor of the House if he agreed to give up his hunger strike before he caused irreparable damage to himself. I am hugely grateful to those who have helped me to keep that promise to Ali and his family, and I wish him well as he recovers from his ordeal.
While I highlight the situation facing Hassan Mushaima and Dr al-Singace, there are others whose predicament is even worse—the prisoners on death row who have exhausted all legal remedies available to them and are now at imminent risk of execution. The executions are only pending ratification by the king, and painful experience tells us that they could be carried out any day without little or no warning given to the families. Of the 26 people awaiting execution in Bahrain, no fewer than 12 have been convicted of political charges. A recent report by the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy and Reprieve found that executions in Bahrain have increased by a factor of 10 since the UK began its financial assistance through the integrated activity fund in 2017.
Just this morning, Human Rights Watch published its annual report. One look at the section on Bahrain shows that things are not getting any better and that the UK’s attempts at gentle persuasion have failed miserably. However, can we expect the Government to change tack? Of course we all understand that much of this is wrapped up in the UK still wanting to appear an important player on the world stage, coupled with a desperate attempt to secure a trade deal with the countries that make up the Gulf Co-operation Council—something, anything, that will offset the damage done to the UK economy by Brexit. But surely we cannot allow a desire for a trade deal to trample over the moral obligation we have to call out human rights abusers, no matter how deep their pockets or how lucrative the terms on offer. If we choose to go down this road of being a champion for democracy and human rights, but only when it does not upset our rich and powerful allies, then in reality we are not champions of human rights at all.
Will the Minister raise directly with the Bahraini authorities the cases of Dr al-Singace and Hassan Mushaima, and the other political prisoners, and demand justice for those jailed for their part in exercising the basic human right of freedom of speech? Will the Government finally abandon their obviously failed policy of trying to love-bomb Bahrain into improving its awful human rights record by putting some real pressure on the regime to change its ways? That could start by suspending the Gulf strategy fund and establishing a public inquiry into whether that fund has supported regimes with poor human rights records.
The UK could stop funding Bahrain’s Ministry of Interior and the ombudsman—bodies that are involved in torture and the whitewashing of abuses against political prisoners. The UK could end all joint training programmes with the Bahraini military until such time as Bahrain allows access to independent human rights monitors, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and UN human rights organisations such as the working group on arbitrary detention. The UK could call for a UN-led commission to investigate torture within Bahrain—one that permits the UN special rapporteur on torture access to its prisons.
In short, there is so much the United Kingdom could do, but is not doing, to call out human rights abuses by its friends. I believe that that refusal to act is doing the United Kingdom enormous reputational damage.
I ought to say that the reason I stood late in the exchanges on the Transport Committee statement was that I did not want to come in early. In the role of Father of the House, one often catches the Speaker’s or Deputy Speaker’s eye, but there are occasions when I think it is more appropriate not to come in early, and that was one of them.
When I was first elected to the House of Commons, I became a foot soldier for the Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry, and I was allocated a young man who could not leave the USSR. Several years later, he could. I am not saying that my efforts were dominant in that decision, but it is only when people start making individual initiatives, or protests sometimes, that people pay attention. To those who are listening in Bahrain, there are a number of things one can say about Bahrain that are in their favour. It is probably the only Arab country where a senior Minister was sacked because of a human rights abuse—although that was some time ago. It is also true that in 2006 the human rights organisations said that Bahrain was making significant progress. No human rights organisation has said the same since then, and in the past five years things have got significantly worse.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) will be able to talk about his views on whether there are political prisoners or not. On Bahrain National Day, there is usually an amnesty, and the human rights organisations asked that some of the political prisoners be included. None were. If one wants to make a distinction between what is and is not political, that is a useful way of looking at it.
One of the things we said against Bahrain is on the use of torture. If a number of people are convicted only on their own confessions, and then make substantiated allegations of ill-treatment while in custody, one has to say that Bahrain has much further progress to make. Its legal and justice systems will work better when torture is ended. I will not go into a lot of detail, in part because the suddenness of this debate—I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for making it possible—means that I have two other meetings between 2 pm and 3.30 pm on fire safety in residential leaseholds, so I have a responsibility to try to fulfil those commitments. I will leave it to others to make the detailed points on individuals.
I was asked some time back, when Guantanamo Bay was opened up as a prison, whether a human rights organisation, Reprieve, should start taking up some of the cases—not whether people were innocent or not, but whether people should have proper legal representation. I said that it should: to begin with, people would not understand, because obviously everyone who has been taken to Guantanamo must be guilty of some terrible crime, but in time people would realise that a lot of people had been swept up who should not have been there, and even those who should be there ought still to have the chance of legal representation. I am glad that Reprieve reports that one person in Guantanamo Bay has now been allocated for release. I hope that some country will take that person; if the Americans do not want to go on holding them, they ought to have a chance at living at peace elsewhere.
I am not a middle east specialist, but I do understand the consequences of history, and in Bahrain there is a majority community with little access to power or responsibility. That may be one of the underlying reasons why the rulers of Bahrain are resisting doing things that would make life in Bahrain safer, more secure and better for all. I commend to people the Wikipedia article on human rights in Bahrain; it would be useful to those who want to take an interest in the subject. As I conclude, I say to the Bahrainis: “You are not the worst country in the world, but it wouldn’t take many steps for you to become one of the best countries in the world. Please do.”
I put on record my thanks to the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) for securing today’s debate, for visiting the hunger strike outside the Bahraini embassy and for his support for Hassan Mushaima and his plight in prison in Bahrain.
I also went along to support that strike, and as a result I received a letter—a quite substantial letter—from the Bahraini embassy on 24 December. I quote one line from it:
“No person is, or can be, prosecuted for such activities,”—
that is, freedom of expression and other issues—
“and no person is arrested or in custody in Bahrain in connection with peaceful political activity.”
Since the Bahraini Government have clearly made that statement, they must live up to it, and that means they must be prepared to answer the questions that various United Nations and other human rights bodies wish to put to them. They cannot simply make such a bold statement and then not be able to substantiate it.
Indeed, the speeches already made indicate that human rights in Bahrain are in an appalling situation, and this is not new. The first time I ever met human rights activists from Bahrain was in 1986 at a United Nations conference I was attending in Copenhagen at the time, and they talked to me about the situation they were facing. I hope that today our British Government will be able to say that we do put human rights, democracy and the right of freedom of speech—all the things enshrined in the universal declaration—first before we start military exercises or military training and providing financial support to this particular regime.
The United Nations Human Rights Council registered its very deep concern that, between 17 April and 5 May only last year, there were reports of 64 cases of torture in prison in Bahrain. There has been a denial of access for human rights monitors and human rights organisations to Bahrain, which has been the very consistent pattern for a very long time. There are also significant concerns, which have not been mentioned so far, about the rights and living standards of the very large number of migrant workers who live and work in Bahrain and keep the economy going.
International visitors have often drawn attention to the living standards and conditions of migrant workers, as they have in other Gulf states, and I think we should be on the side of those migrant workers, who after all do keep the economy going. It is to the credit of Lewis Hamilton and others that they used their substantial media presence to highlight human rights abuses in Bahrain when they were there for the Formula 1 race. The best response of Formula 1 would be to say that it will refuse to go countries where there are significant human rights abuses, rather than expecting drivers individually to make such statements.
There is also the concept of mass trials that go on in Bahrain: 167 people were sentenced in one day in 2019, and 26 are on death row. As the Father of the House, the hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley), pointed out in his speech, many of the people put on trial have confessed under torture, duress or pressure to crimes they did not commit, or in some cases could not have committed. That would be illegal in this country and illegal anywhere in Europe through the European convention on human rights. There has to be universal acceptance that, whatever crime somebody is accused of, they have a right to legal representation and a legal presence during the investigation. It is not a very big ask to put.
My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon), who has had to leave to go to another debate in Westminster Hall, particularly asked me to raise the case of Ali al-Hajee, who is serving a 10-year sentence in Jau prison for organising pro-democracy protests. He was subject to severe torture following his arrest in 2013, leaving him with life-changing injuries, and there was a 75-day hunger strike in prison to support him and others. If the Bahrain Government and embassy are listening to and watching this debate, as I am sure they are, I hope they will bear in mind what I said in quoting from their letter at the start of my remarks. I want an answer on his case, as we do on all the other cases.
I know that time is quite limited and many others wish to speak in this debate, so I will conclude with these thoughts. Bahrain is a member of the United Nations and it is a prosperous place. Bahrain has significant human rights difficulties and problems not unassociated with the relationship of the royal family and the Government of Bahrain with Saudi Arabia and the oppression of democracy protests that has gone on for a long time in Bahrain. Surely to goodness, on this basis alone we should pause all military aid and assistance to Bahrain and pause any support that is given to quasi-Government organisations in Bahrain until it puts its human rights record to rights, because if we support the Bahrain military and police force in their behaviour towards protesters, who are we to complain about abuses that take place?
I am pleased that we are having this debate, and I am pleased by the remarks of the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute and of the Father of the House. When we speak out and take up individual cases, as no doubt other colleagues will, it has an effect and it begins to help. The Bahraini embassy has said that it wants to meet those of us who are concerned about human rights in Bahrain. That is absolutely fine. I am very happy to go along and meet its staff with a list of political prisoners and of people who I believe should not be in prison. They should be subject to the normal rules that the rest of us expect, with an accountable police force, a transparent legal system and prison conditions that do not allow torture or force 12 people into a very small cell, which itself is a torture.
We are here to speak up for justice and human rights around the world, and today our focus is on Bahrain. I hope it is listening.
For nearly 53 years, I have been a good friend and supporter of Bahrain as I have watched it develop quickly to become the vibrant country that it is today. When I was elected to Parliament, I immediately joined the Bahrain all-party parliamentary group, and I have been its chairman for three years. I have visited the island several times, especially for the Manama dialogues, and I have given two lectures on principles and decision making to its diplomatic corps—for the record, no money changed hands.
Bahrain has freedom of religion. On my last visit in November, I visited a synagogue—the only one in the Arabian Gulf, by the way, which I think is enlightened for the region in which Bahrain sits. According to the Bahraini constitution, freedom of opinion and expression are expressly protected, and no person can be prosecuted for such activities. I am certain that nobody is in prison simply for disagreeing with the regime. Many have been convicted with evidence—which others may suggest has been tampered with—of being involved in terrorism in one way or another. That is exactly the way we act in this country.
It is a standard terrorist tactic for people accused of terrorism to claim that they are being unfairly treated and that the charges against them are politically motivated, as I know from my own experience in Northern Ireland. However, I am very pleased to say that in November 2019, the public prosecutor’s office in Bahrain announced the release of 75 prisoners, most of whom claimed that they were in prison for political reasons, so it is not true that so-called political prisoners have not been released. I gather that several prisoners face the death penalty, but their executions are in abeyance, at least for the moment—and, by the way, they all killed security personnel and innocent civilians.
I must point out to the House that Bahrain faces considerable terrorist activity—I have seen the concrete evidence for that. Every state has the right to defend itself against such activities, and Bahrain is no different from us. During my last visit in November, I saw a whole range of weapons that had been confiscated in anti-terrorist operations. They included booby traps, anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, mines, rifles and heavy machine guns. From my own experience, I can tell colleagues that some of the ordnance that I saw was very heavy stuff indeed. I also saw a large noticeboard in the police headquarters that seemed to have well over 100 photographs of young policemen and quite a few policewomen who had been murdered by terrorists.
I had been aware before my last visit that Bahrain faced considerable threats from terrorism, but not on the scale of which I saw the evidence last November. The main terrorism that Bahrain faces is inspired from Iran, which is doing all it can to encourage rebellion in the state; it is also where a lot of the weaponry I saw originated from.
Last May, ambassadors from China, France, Italy, Germany and Oman and our British ambassador, as well as the American chargé d’affaires, went to Jau, the main prison in Bahrain. Following that, our own highly experienced ambassador, Roddy Drummond, tweeted:
“I was pleased to visit Jau prison on 3 May with other Ambassadors. We were shown a well-run facility, with good medical provision and measures against Covid, with vaccinations offered to all prisoners. I welcome this initiative by the authorities to be more transparent.”
Bahrain is unfairly portrayed by many who often fail to mention the considerable terrorist threat and the many security personnel who have been murdered. True, there have been mistakes, and Bahrain is not totally there, but, if it has a human rights problem, may I point out that several in the neighbourhood have far worse such records and yet are not pilloried in the same way? The island lives in a volatile neighbourhood, and it is trying its very best with decency to look after its people—all of them.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) on securing time for the debate and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing it. I remind the House of my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests: namely, that I am a director of the board of the Council for Arab-British Understanding and an officer of a number of the all-party parliamentary groups relative to the Gulf, including the one chaired by the hon. Member.
I thank the right hon. and gallant Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) for his contribution to the debate, which illustrated rather well the challenge that we all have—I include the Government—in this area: maintaining the appropriate balance. My consideration of the situation in Bahrain leads me to be most concerned about human rights abuses. We see the comments of Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other human rights organisations that have taken an interest in Bahrain, and those people have no axe to grind other than because they have a concern for human rights.
I say to the Minister that, in striking the balance—as we must do—the Government have some way to go in getting it right. I understand the strategic importance of Gulf countries to the United Kingdom and of engagement with them. I also understand that sometimes we have to engage with a long-handled spoon, as it were, but I suggest that engagement is worthwhile only if we can see progress and a benefit from it, especially in the maintenance in human rights, and that the money we spend on countries such as Bahrain must show a rather better return than we have seen so far.
It concerns me that, last year, the Home Secretary met Bahrain’s Minister of the Interior, Sheikh Rashid bin Abdullah al-Khalifa, in the wake of an appallingly violent attack against political prisoners in Jau prison in which inmates were subjected to mass torture and enforced disappearance at the hands of the authority. The meeting also took place following the arrest and abuse of 13 children who were subjected to threats of rape and electric shock. The United Kingdom ambassador to Bahrain, Roddy Drummond, also met Sheikh Rashid just a few weeks ago.
Members of the House have heard me speak on numerous occasions about the case for Magnitsky sanctions in relation to several officers of the Chinese Communist party. I give every credit to the Government for their progress on that, especially in relation to those who are active in the Xinjiang region. However, I must say to the Minister that we undermine our good work on China and other regimes if we do not approach Governments in places such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain with equal vigour. That is what I mean in talking about balance.
In replying to the debate, will the Minister address the reasons for the Government refusing to act against Minister Rashid al-Khalifa for his role in overseeing appalling human rights violations and a culture of impunity? That is a man who was responsible for the bloodiest days of the crackdown in 2011. Protestors have been detained and tortured at the hands of his officials.
The all-party parliamentary group on human rights, which I co-chair, has been concerned about serious and systematic human rights violations in Bahrain for decades. Then and now, the following have been at the heart of the problems in Bahrain. The Executive retain far too much control, their powers remain largely unchecked and the majority Shi’a Muslim population feel discriminated against by the Sunni, who govern. There is no genuine political Opposition, no press freedom and few independent NGOs are able to operate freely in the country.
The Bahraini Government undertook cosmetic reforms to convince the outside world that things have improved, including the establishment of oversight mechanisms, the extension of the alternative sentencing law to all prisoners, and the development of a national action plan for human rights. But the reality is, sadly, all too apparent to those who scratch the surface. The continued arbitrary detention and inhumane treatment of prisoners of conscience—that is, those in prison solely for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression, assembly and/or association—serve to illustrate the true situation in Bahrain.
Like many colleagues, I visited Ali Mushaima during his hunger strike in front of the Bahraini embassy to highlight the plight of prisoners of conscience such as his father Hassan and Abduljalil al-Singace. I, too, got the same letter from the embassy.
The all-party group on human rights has been trying for some years to promote a genuine and substantive political dialogue between the Bahraini authorities and peaceful human rights defenders and opposition activists. Indeed, in 2012, marking the first anniversary of the publication of the Bahrain independent commission of inquiry report—a positive move by the Bahraini King that still needs to be properly followed through—the right hon. Ann Clwyd, the then all-party group chair and former Member for Cynon Valley, brought together such a group on the parliamentary estate to talk and listen to one another. Sadly, however, that did not result in ongoing engagement.
We all want to see a stable and prosperous Bahrain where every citizen can exercise their fundamental rights without fear of persecution, prosecution or detention. That will not happen until the Bahraini authorities engage in good faith with peaceful human rights and opposition activists. The clearest way to indicate their good faith would be by recognising all remaining prisoners of conscience and releasing them unconditionally, followed by initiating national dialogue with a view to establishing a more representative Government structure—one underpinned by the rule of law and respect for human rights.
If the UK Government are a true friend of Bahrain and the Bahraini people, they could help by persuading the Bahraini Government to take stock and embark on such a course of action. The UK Government should immediately stop parroting the line that abuses should be raised with domestic Bahraini oversight bodies. It has become increasingly clear that those bodies are limited in reach and in the interests they are able to serve. Additionally, the UK should stop funding the Bahraini Government’s reform agenda given that there has been so little to show for it so far. UK Government officials, including Ministers, need to meet a much wider range of Bahraini interlocutors to hear different perspectives and help to get everyone around the table. The alternative—unsuccessfully attempting to paper over the cracks—will lead only to a situation that none of us wants: growing discontent and instability, potential violence and even greater repression.
Let us take action now while we still can. I hope to meet Bahraini authorities and FCDO officials in the coming months and encourage colleagues to sign early-day motion 835 on human rights in Bahrain to express our collective concern about the situation and support a true path to reform.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I very much acknowledge what the right hon. and gallant Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) said about terrorism. None of us supports terrorism, but we have to express our concern about the human rights abuses.
I also thank the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) for setting the scene so well on this crucial topic. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, I am seriously concerned that religious discrimination remains a serious problem for Bahraini civil society and Bahrain’s many political prisoners.
I understand there are more Shi’a mosques than Sunni mosques in Bahrain. People can worship what they like in Bahrain—they can worship a tree if they like—and, as I have said, there is a synagogue there. I think freedom of religion is extremely well established in Bahrain.
I am pleased the right hon. Gentleman is able to say that. Although I acknowledge there have been gigantic steps in the right direction, I will illustrate where the problems are.
We had a Zoom meeting with the hunger strikers, who illustrated the human rights abuses. I was pleased to listen to their concerns, and hopefully in this debate I will be able to express some of my concerns on their behalf. During Bahrain’s popular pro-democracy uprising 11 years ago, the regime demolished 38 Shi’a Muslim mosques. Despite promising they would rebuild the mosques, that has yet to occur after more than a decade.
In addition, during Muharram last year—a most important time in the Shi’a Muslim calendar—the Bahraini Government used covid-19 as an excuse to crack down on civil society’s freedom of religion and practise of religious rites. I am sorry to say there is an evidence base on the abuse of human rights. I always try to be respectful in what I say in seeking change and that is what I am trying to do today.
During Ashura, the Muslim holiday, slogans were hung on buildings in Shi’a-majority villages across Bahrain. The Government damaged and removed those slogans, and imposed targeted discriminatory policies on Shi’a places of worship, a sheer act of coercion. It is appalling that leading figures in Bahrain, including prominent Shi’a clerics such as Sheikh Ali Salman and Sheikh Muhammad Habib, continue to be held unjustly behind bars in Bahrain. Most religious leaders are serving life sentences in prison for their peaceful role in calling for democracy during the 2011 Arab spring, and they have now been wrongfully deprived of their liberty for over 10 years, which is utterly appalling. I have to put that on record in this House. I call for their release.
Some families have had their Bahraini passports removed, meaning they have no citizenship, due to family members’ involvement in peaceful protests. Again, these things are happening. We are saying it very gently, but we have to put it on record and we have to seek change.
A particularly disturbing incident is the Bahraini authorities’ violent attack against political prisoners who were staging a sit-in at Jau prison on 17 April 2021, mentioned by the right hon. Members for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) and for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute. Following that attack, 64 political prisoners were forcibly disappeared for 19 days and held incommunicado for between 30 and 36 days, during which time they were unable to contact their families or their lawyers, in a flagrant violation of both national and international law.
The evidence base for these facts cannot be ignored. Inmates sometimes remained handcuffed and shackled for over a week and were forced to pray in chains and torn, bloodied clothes. They were also forced to eat, sleep and use the toilet in these conditions. If that is not an abuse of human rights, I want to know what is. This act of control and coercion is utterly shocking, and it must be noted that the entire incident took place during Ramadan, while inmates were fasting. None was given their iftar meal.
I know the Minister is a good man, and I know he will respond to the issues of concern raised in this debate. Given these manifest violations of the fundamental human right to freedom of religion or belief in Bahrain, the Minister and the UK Government must do more to call for the release of imprisoned religious leaders and acknowledge the violations they continue to face. They are an abuse of human rights and an abuse of religious views, and we cannot let that go unnoticed; we must call it out. The UK stated in 2020 that
“Bahrain maintained a positive record on freedom of religion or belief.”
My belief is that that statement must be reconsidered, as the evidential base tells us something very different.
Will the Minister—I conclude with this, Madam Deputy Speaker—acknowledge that Bahrain has contravened the human right to freedom of religion of many political prisoners? I think the evidential base is there. Will he commit to urging his counterparts in that country—we ask them gently and we ask them forcibly—to ensure that those prisoners’ immediate and unconditional release from prison is what happens as a result of this debate? That is what we require.
I am delighted to participate in this debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) on bringing this important matter to the Floor of the House.
Life for citizens living under the Bahraini regime must give all of us who believe in democratic values deep cause for concern. Those who criticise the regime in Bahrain are, as we have heard today, subjected to the most cruel and random treatment, which is an affront to all that is decent: unfair trials of protesters and critics of the regime; ill treatment of detainees which is tantamount to torture; the fabrication of evidence against those in custody; minority groups targeted; the use of the death penalty; the suppression of freedom of expression; and even reports of rape and electric shock treatments for detainees, some of whom are juveniles. That is the ugly story of life under the current regime in Bahrain.
We are all aware of the Isa Town prison, the only female detention facility in Bahrain, where female prisoners suffer politically motivated human rights violations, such as being denied medical care, physical and psychological abuse, threats of sexual violence and religious discrimination, as well as arbitrary detention and collective punishment. No one should be an apologist for that regime, certainly not from the comfort of the Westminster Benches.
We can also consider the case of Mr al-Singace. We have heard much about Mr al-Singace this afternoon, a 59-year-old academic languishing in prison following his peaceful opposition to Bahrain’s dictatorship during the 2011 Arab spring. Having already endured degrading treatment and torture, suffered medical negligence, and endured the indignity of being denied sanitation facilities, he is currently on hunger strike facing a slow death in prison.
What do we hear from the UK Government? We know that they have hosted meetings with Bahraini officials, but they appear to have exercised no influence over the regime and remain a staunch ally. Given that the Government are an ally of that regime, what does that say about the so-called old-fashioned British values we hear about? Whatever action the UK Government are prepared to take against the Bahraini regime and whatever influence they are prepared to bring to bear, that is a choice. To refuse to take any action against the regime, or to refuse to use their influence is also a choice. I fully support early-day motion 578 calling for the UK Government to impose Magnitsky sanctions on those responsible for the unlawful imprisonment of Dr al-Singace. I am sure that many Members have also supported the motion.
I remember the fanfare, on 6 July 2020, around the launch of the UK Government’s global human rights sanctions regime, which meant the Foreign Secretary would have the power to sanction persons implicated in human rights abuses anywhere across the globe. Yet Bahraini leaders such as General Rashid bin Abdullah Al Khalifa have been hosted by senior members of this Government. People like him are deeply implicated in the torture of some of their own citizens in Bahrain. It is even more curious that, while the UK Government were cutting humanitarian aid by billions last year, including for clean water and nutrition, their support for the Gulf strategy fund, the former integrated activity fund, increased by 154%. The integrated activity fund has been completely discredited due to its lack of transparency and links to regimes with dubious human rights records, such as Bahrain.
I hope that the Minister, when he gets to his feet, can explain how the flagrant human rights abuses perpetrated by the Bahraini regime’s leaders are impacting on its relationship with the UK. Are they impacting at all? Bahrain’s leaders are still feted by UK Government officials and money is increasingly finding its way into Bahrain from the UK. Where does that leave the UK’s relationship with this barbaric regime? It looks for all the world as though the UK Government, for all their pretensions to be a global supporter of human rights, are content to turn a blind eye to these appalling human rights abuses when it suits. By maintaining unconditional political and economic support for the Bahraini regime, the UK Government are enabling and facilitating brutality and repression in that country.
We need the UK Government to be much more transparent about which projects the UK funds in Bahrain, with human rights assessments for each. Failure to do so can only heighten concerns. A public inquiry into whether the integrated activity fund—now the Gulf strategy fund—has propped up regimes with poor human rights records is critical. However, while the pressure for such an inquiry grows, the fund continues to operate, despite billions of pounds of cuts to international aid spending by this Government. It is disgraceful that the UK’s Ministry of Defence has carried out training programmes with Bahraini military forces, notwithstanding the fact that Bahrain is on the Foreign Office’s human rights watch list.
The UK Government need to send a clear and robust signal that the human rights abuses in Bahrain are unacceptable. They must look to their funding mechanisms and their inaction, and stop conferring legitimacy on this appallingly cruel and barbaric regime. We too often hear the UK Government trumpeting their role as a force for good in the world, but words are not enough. All funding for Bahraini programmes that are not focused on poverty alleviation must be suspended until we have much greater transparency around these programmes.
We need the UK Government to introduce a resolution addressing human rights violations in Bahrain at the UN Human Rights Council. We need a UN-led commission to investigate torture within Bahrain that allows access to prisons. As long as Bahrain denies access to independent human rights monitors, including Amnesty International, we can be sure that the regime continues to torture and otherwise mistreat its citizens. The argument that I have heard today, that there are worse regimes than Bahrain, will offer no comfort, and should offer no comfort, to those who have suffered barbaric treatment under that regime.
It is time for the UK to do the right thing and put its money where its mouth is. If it wants to be a force for good in the world, as it often says it does, it cannot choose to pass by on the other side while those in Bahrain standing up for freedom are brutalised. I hope that the UK Government will use every diplomatic tool at their disposal to effect greater respect for human rights in Bahrain. Our own respect for human rights demands nothing less.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) on securing this important debate. We on the Opposition side of the House have serious concerns about the human rights situation in Bahrain, particularly with regard to the detention of political prisoners. We have even more concerns about the UK Government’s lack of action with regard to these prisoners. We believe that the role of a friend is to criticise when necessary. A true friend does not stay silent and turn a blind eye when the wrong course of action is being taken. It is simply wrong that on the eve of a free trade agreement between us and Bahrain, UK Ministers remain deafeningly silent on the issue of human rights and the ongoing detention of political prisoners.
Labour has regularly called on UK Ministers to use our country’s close relationship with Bahrain to press publicly for human rights reform. We have also called on the UK Government to do all they can to press for the immediate release of political prisoners in Bahrain who are still detained for standing up for democracy. Members have mentioned a number of such prisoners during the course of this debate, including Dr Abduljalil al-Singace and Hasan Mushaima.
We have heard in this debate many examples of how torture and due process violations are endemic in Bahrain. Prison conditions and treatment of political prisoners are notorious and regularly contravene international human rights law. Bahrain has the highest number of political prisoners per capita in the middle east. There are currently about 1,500 political prisoners in the small kingdom, according to the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy. It is also well known that there has been a crackdown in Bahrain, targeting members of the majority Shi’a community, since authorities crushed the popular uprising during the 2011 Arab spring.
Bahrain has even shunned visit requests—from the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights defenders in 2012 and 2015, and even more recently from special rapporteurs on torture, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. Yet, despite cross-party calls for the UK to secure the release of Bahrainis political prisoners, little has been done by UK Ministers. In fact, the issue has been swept under the carpet.
It has now been 10 years since Britain began funding training and other enterprises in Bahrain and yet torture survivors continue to face execution and political leaders languish behind bars. Even worse than that, it has been argued that the UK Government can be seen as complicit in some of the abuse that has occurred, because of their wilful lack of scrutiny over how UK funds are spent in the region. It is worth looking more closely at the UK Government’s role in these matters.
The integrated activity fund was established by the UK Government in 2015 to support the delivery of flexible, cross-cutting and sustained investment to Bahrain and other countries in the Gulf region. Labour has regularly expressed concern that, in allocating UK taxpayer money to the integrated activity fund, the UK Government have not followed their own human rights due diligence policies. The integrated activity fund was replaced at the end of last year by the Gulf strategy fund.
A cross-party report by the all-party group on democracy and human rights in the Gulf, which was published in July 2021, found that programmes supported by the IAF had been run
“with absolute minimal levels of accountability, transparency and due diligence in spite of being repeatedly implicated in human rights violations.”
The report of the all-party group stated that institutions backed by the IAF had
“whitewashed human rights abuses, placing the UK government at risk of complicity in abuses themselves”.
According to the Government, the GSF in Bahrain had backed reforms to deliver long-term security and stability, but the all-party report found that both the IAF and the GSF fund programmes to bodies in Bahrain that continue to be implicated in serious human rights and international law violations. The report was unequivocal and it was damning. It recommended:
“Government funding to GCC states through the GSF should be immediately suspended pending an independent inquiry into its implication in human rights and international law violations.”
It is important to make it clear that this report received cross-party endorsement, including that of veteran Conservatives such as the Father of the House, the hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley), and the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce).
This is clearly not a partisan party political matter. Indeed, it is clear that standing up for human rights and political prisoners in Bahrain and beyond transcends party politics. It is not a matter of left or right, but a matter of right or wrong. If we as Members of Parliament are not prepared to stand up for what is right on the eve of the free trade deal with Bahrain, when will we be?
It is clear that many Members from across the House believe in the sanctity of human rights and are concerned about political prisoners in Bahrain. They believe, like me, that dialogue with Bahrain and others must remain open, but must not ever shy away from difficult subjects. It is therefore deeply disappointing that the Government apparently do not share this conviction of a sense of right and wrong. That is why we are calling on Ministers to take action now on this issue. We believe that the UK Government should publicly condemn the detention and mistreatment of all Bahraini political prisoners—
I thank the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene. I have looked at this matter and visited the country several times, and there is not, to the best of my knowledge, a prisoner in a Bahrain prison who has not carried out an offence that is much more than speaking out against the regime—like being a member of a terrorist organisation or propagating terrorism.
Is not one of the main concerns that people are convicted in Bahrain with no access to independent legal representation or legal accompaniment and claim to have been subjected to torture before confessing to crimes and were therefore imprisoned after that? As I pointed out in my speech, that would be totally illegal within the concepts of international law anywhere else in the world.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I too have heard those allegations of the lack of advice prior to conviction.
The UK Government must publicly condemn the death sentences given to torture victims in Bahrain and urgently use all available leverage to push for Bahrain to quash them. The UK Government should also enable an independent inquiry into the implications of their programmes, such as the GSF, and human rights violations, particularly in Bahrain. They should also call for a political reform process in Bahrain that promotes democracy and includes the release of imprisoned civil society leaders.
Bahrain remains important to the UK politically, diplomatically and militarily and we hope that we have a mutual relationship. As with all mutual relationships, we expect the UK Government to call out human rights abuses and stand up for what is right. We have heard much from the Government in the past about engagement on those issues, but where is the evidence of it? The Government need to walk the walk on this. The time for just talking the talk is over.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) for securing the debate. It gives me the opportunity to put on record an alternative—and, I suspect, more balanced—viewpoint to the one that he put forward. Nevertheless, the debate gives us all an opportunity to discuss an important issue. I also put on record my gratitude to other Members who have spoken. I will try to address some of their points, but time prevents me from dealing with them all.
As has been said by Members on both sides of the House, the UK and Bahrain are indeed allies and partners. We work closely together on defence, security, trade and regional issues. Our naval support facilities are a symbol of that enduring co-operation and the UK’s commitment to peace, security and stability in the region. The country provided the first permanent UK naval presence east of Suez since 1971, and continues to support our counter-terrorism, counter-piracy and maritime security operations, providing security not just for British trade and British nationals, but for all those who are active in the maritime region around the waters of Bahrain.
The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute was passionate in his criticism of not just Bahrain, but Her Majesty’s Government. He claimed—Hansard will correct me if I am wrong—that the UK is bankrolling Bahrain. He went on to say that we were trying to get money from Bahrain. It is not credible to hold simultaneously the positions—
At no point did I say that the UK was getting money from Bahrain. The Government are trying to secure a trade deal with Bahrain and that is why they are turning a blind eye to the most flagrant human rights abuses. It is not about getting money from Bahrain, but about turning a blind eye to human rights to secure a trade deal.
The hon. Gentleman seems to think that he has clarified his position, but he has made it more chaotic and incoherent. If he does not think that trade deals are about securing an inward flow of money to a country, I dread to think what the trade policy of a separatist Scotland under an SNP Government would look like. However, time is tight and we need to get on.
I also thought it was quite telling that the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) listed and dismissed the oversight bodies—I will come to some of the oversight bodies that the UK has helped to bring into existence later—rather than calling for them to be made more effective. She seemed to want to rip away the organisations that seek, with our support, to improve the legal and criminal justice system in Bahrain, and I think that is perhaps rather telling in respect of her motivations in the debate.
I have genuine respect for my shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous), but he accused Her Majesty’s Government of being silent on the issues of concern in Bahrain. He is relatively new in post, so I will forgive him for this, but I suggest that if he thinks we have been silent, that is more of an indication that he has perhaps not been listening. I will highlight where the UK Government have brought these things to international attention.
Defending human rights and promoting democracy around the world is a priority for Her Majesty’s Government. We want to work to support countries such as Bahrain that have demonstrated, and continue to demonstrate, a desire to adopt a more progressive and inclusive domestic set of measures, not just in their attitudes and words, but in their actions.
I have heard from a number of Members that we should disengage from working with Bahrain, including on human rights issues, and I cannot possibly disagree more strongly. They should ask themselves about the options before them: do they want Her Majesty’s Government to drive improvements in countries such as Bahrain or would they prefer Her Majesty’s Government just to stand on the sidelines and shout abuse, as they have done? If it is the former, the question we should ask ourselves is how best we influence change. We are better able to influence change through engagement, dialogue and co-operation. It is patently in the UK’s national interest to help countries such as Bahrain to benefit from our experience and expertise as they move on their journey towards essential reform.
A number of right hon. and hon. Members have raised the issue of progress and I will come to that, particularly with regard to the Gulf strategy fund. I want to clarify a point that was repeated by a number of Opposition Members about the increase in funding. I remind the House that the Gulf strategy fund does not come from our ODA allocation. The predecessor of the Gulf strategy fund, which sought to accomplish, largely, the same set of priorities, had a budget of—let me double-check. Sorry, the budget for 2021 had halved. The Gulf strategy fund’s predecessor’s previous budget was twice as much, so when people talk about an increase, actually, the budget has halved. It is important to put that on record.
The point is about engagement. Will the Minister assure us that he will pressurise the Bahrain Government to engage with the United Nations human rights organisations and allow them to have independent visits and monitoring, as well as allowing unfettered access for human rights groups such as Amnesty International?
My understanding is that the United Nations is already engaging with Bahrain on a number of the issues that the right hon. Gentleman has put forward. I have a number of other points that I wish to address, and I have been generous, so if the House will forgive me, I do not intend to take any more interventions so that the next debate can take place in good time.
A number of Members have highlighted performance indicators and demonstrations or approvals of our involvement. Our close relationship with the Bahraini Government and civil society, including non-governmental organisations, gives the UK a privileged position to positively influence developments on human rights. We draw on 100 years of probation experience, for example, and we are using it to encourage and support Bahraini-led judicial reform. We welcome the steps taken by the Government of Bahrain in reforming their judicial process, including the introduction of alternative sentencing legislation. I know that a number of people in incarceration have been offered alternatives to it. To date, more than 3,600 individuals have had potential prison time replaced by alternative sentences, and further cases remain under consideration by the judiciary.
Our work has supported the effective establishment of independent oversight bodies—the ones that the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) would seek to destroy—including the National Institute For Human Rights, the Ministry of Interior Ombudsman, the Special Investigations Unit, and the Prisoners and Detainees Rights Commission.
Members have highlighted examples of completely inappropriate behaviour by Bahraini officials. I remind the House that more than 90 security personal have been prosecuted or face disciplinary action because of investigations carried out by human rights oversight bodies that the UK Government support. We believe that Bahrain is undertaking important and effective steps to address allegations of torture and mistreatment in detention.
We strongly welcome the initiative that Bahrain has taken to develop an inaugural human rights plan. It is taking an inclusive approach, welcoming contributions from us and from the United Nations, which the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) was so passionate about earlier. We look forward to the publication and implementation of the plan, which we expect will deliver further reforms in Bahrain.
We of course recognise that there is more work to be done. To reinforce the point that I made to the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute, Lord Ahmed and I have made and will continue to make these points directly to our ministerial counterparts in Bahrain, and because we enjoy a strong working relationship with them, I know that they will listen to us.
I am not able to go into details case by case, but Ministers and senior officials closely monitor cases of interest of those in detention in Bahrain, and indeed in many other countries. That is a core part of the support Her Majesty’s Government gives to human rights and democracy. Where appropriate, we bring those cases to the attention of those at ministerial or senior official level in partner countries. It is important to highlight that those currently under detention have been tried and convicted of crimes and sentenced under Bahraini law, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) said. The right to fair trial is enshrined in the constitution of Bahrain, and we will continue to encourage the Government of Bahrain to follow due process in all cases and meet their international and domestic human rights commitments.
Bahrain remains an important partner and friend of the United Kingdom. We commend the progress that it has made on human rights and the ambition for the further development of political, social, economic and governmental institutions. The Father of the House, my right hon. Friend—
Outrageous. The Father of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley), said something typically wise: it would not take much for Bahrain to become one of the best. I think he is right to say that. We will continue to hold frank and sometimes difficult but constructive discussions with our counterparts in Bahrain, and we will continue to support them through the Gulf strategy fund and other diplomatic means, to help them to become the very best that they can be.
I put on record my thanks to the hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley), the right hon. Members for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), the hon. Members for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon), my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) and the right hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) for their contributions.
It is deeply disappointing that in a debate about the detention of Bahraini political prisoners, the Minister did not once in his speech mention the names of Dr al-Singace, Hassan Mushaima or any of the other prisoners who have been mentioned. The message came loud and clear from the Minister that everything the Government have done for the past 10 years may have failed, but it is business as usual because human rights abuses are a price worth paying to secure a trade deal with just about anybody.
As the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate said, this is not a matter of party politics; it is a matter of right and wrong. The Minister and his Government have clearly picked which side they are on. Hon. Friends and Members on both sides of the Chamber will continue to ask the awkward questions, continue to expose the multiple failings of this Government and continue to shine a light where certain people in this House do not want it shone.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the ongoing detention of Bahraini political prisoners.