North Africa, West Asia: Opinion

‘My father’s life is in danger for defending Bahrain’s freedom’

Human rights advocate Ali Mushaima calls on the British government to stop using taxpayers’ money to fund a torturous dictatorship

Ali Mushaima
3 May 2021, 7.17am
Ali Mushaima went on hunger strike to defend his father
Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Hassan Mushaima, leader of the Bahraini political opposition, was imprisoned in 2011 following the peaceful protests that swept the country’s capital, Manama, during the Arab Spring. In this article, his son, Ali Mushaima – following a surge in international attention over human rights violations in Bahrain, demands that the UK government reconsider its relationship with the al-Khalifa regime and help to secure his father’s release.

I was only 15 years old when I was arrested, imprisoned and tortured, during the 1994-1999 Intifada, the peaceful mass protests that demanded constitutional change.

During this time, my father, Hassan Mushaima, had already spent six years in prison, due to his early involvement in the pro-democracy protests. Over the past three decades, he has spent many more years in prison for his activism and leading role in Bahrain’s political opposition.

My father was the co-founder and secretary-general of the Haq movement, and co-founder and vice president of the now dissolved al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, formerly Bahrain’s largest political opposition group.

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In 2011, the mass protests that erupted against the regime and the violent repression that followed, brought back these painful memories for me and my family. Thousands took to the streets demanding an end to tyranny and a peaceful transition to democracy.

This was the moment I realised that it was up to people like myself, my father and thousands of other proud Bahrainis to create a different future for our country. Although I was living in the UK, my heart, mind and soul remained with my people in Bahrain.

On 17 March this year, my 73-year-old father completed ten years in the infamous Jau Prison, where many opponents of the regime are incarcerated. He was arrested in 2011 along with other opposition leaders two days after Saudi and Emirati forces entered Bahrain to suppress the peaceful, popular movement.

He received treatment for cancer in the UK before being imprisoned and presently he suffers from diabetes, gout, heart and prostate problems, and is in remission from lymphoma. In spite of these severe conditions, my father has been routinely denied access to adequate medical care by prison authorities.

On 27 March, a large COVID-19 outbreak was reported in Jau Prison. My father’s health is at particular risk of deteriorating amid this outbreak. .

Mounting pressure

Approximately 100 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in the prison. These new circumstances, combined with the already unsanitary and overcrowded conditions, place not only my father, but potentially thousands of political prisoners at high risk of infection.

There is increasing international scrutiny of the Bahraini authorities for their human rights abuses and the lack of freedom for citizens. On 11 March, the European Parliament passed, with an outstanding majority, an Urgent Motion Resolution on the human rights situation in Bahrain.

On six separate occasions, the UNHRC’s Special Procedures offices have sent communications to Bahrain, pertaining to the treatment of my father. The abuse he has endured constitutes a violation of international detention standards. Several prominent, international human rights organisations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have raised serious concerns about his case. And in 2018, I carried out a 63-day-long protest (46 days of which were spent on hunger strike) outside Bahrain’s London Embassy, in the hope of saving my father’s life.

The US State Department’s 2020 Country Report on Human Rights Practices in Bahrain, released on 30 March, recognises the widespread use of torture and life-threatening conditions that my father, and many other political prisoners, endure in Jau Prison.

Despite all these attempts to pressurise the al-Khalifa regime into improving my father’s treatment in prison, and ultimately guarantee his safe, unconditional release, there has been no tangible change to his circumstances.

The UK’s unwavering support for the al-Khalifa regime means the Bahraini authorities are not held accountable

In the UK, the Labour MP, Zarah Sultana, and 13 other MPs, sent a letter to the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab last month, urging him to reconsider the UK’s ties with Bahrain.

Additionally, an Early Day Motion, submitted for debate in the House of Commons in February, which covers the subjects of human rights and democratisation in Bahrain and specifically mentions my father, has received substantial cross-party support in Parliament.

These actions demonstrate the strong commitment that many in the Parliament have to secure my father’s release, and to urge the prime minister, Boris Johnson, and the Foreign Office to use their leverage to promote peace and democracy in Bahrain. Several unsuccessful attempts have been made on my behalf to establish a point of contact with Foreign Office representatives.

The UK’s unwavering support for the al-Khalifa regime means that the Bahraini authorities are not held accountable, at either national or international level, for committing gross human rights violations against thousands of political dissidents.

Funding a brutal regime

One of the UK government’s official aims of its Gulf Initiative is to “help Bahrain return to a stable and reformist state with a good human rights record”. But it is clear that the UK is not living up to its own foreign policy objectives.

Despite the al-Khalifa dictatorship’s terrible human rights record, the reality is that millions of pounds of British taxpayers’ money are spent annually on supporting it. Bahrain has been listed by the British government, under different administrations, as a priority market for arms sales.

Between 2012 and 2017, the UK’s Conflict Stability and Security Fund (CSSF) provided Bahrain with £5 million in funding, which helped to pay for the training of Bahraini police, who are accused of going on to abuse, torture and execute Bahraini dissidents. These are just some examples of the training programmes, aimed at army and police personnel, and other forms of financial support, provided by the Gulf Integrated Activity Fund (IAF), the successor to the CSSF.

I believe that British taxpayers have the right to know that their money is indirectly contributing to the funding of a brutal regime that uses physical and sexual abuse, torture and unlawful detention – among many other techniques – to control and silence its political opposition.

Today I call the United Kingdom my adoptive home, where I continue to carry out my activism. If I returned home to Bahrain, I would be sentenced to 45 years in prison for the crime of supporting my people’s demands for democracy, while in exile in London.

Despite the safety and freedom I enjoy here, it is impossible for me to feel truly at peace in a country that actively supports and finances the authoritarian al-Khalifa regime.

I call on members of Parliament, civil society and media outlets to put pressure on the British government to cease its support for the al-Khalifa regime, and to help secure my father’s safe release, along with the thousands of other prisoners who gave up their freedom to fight for a better future for themselves and their country.

I will continue to demand that my rights and my people’s rights be respected in my homeland. Only by continuing to use our voice will we be able to further our fight for freedom.

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