On Saturday, human rights activist Maryam Alkhawaja was arrested at Bahrain’s airport upon arriving in the country to visit her father, a prisoner of conscience on hunger strike whose health is understood to be deteriorating rapidly. She has since been denied access to a lawyer and charged with “insulting” (i.e. criticising) the King, which carries a maximum seven year jail sentence, and assaulting a police officer, which as her fellow dissident Nabeel Rajaab notes “is a common charge in Bahrain when they have nothing against you". The Alkhawajas’ real crime is expressing forbbiden views, namely that Bahrain should be a democracy which honours its citizens’ basic rights instead of systematically torturing and murdering them.
The episode further complicates the UK’s efforts to deflect criticism of its former imperial protectorate and current strategic ally, following 2011’s brutal crackdown against a peaceful and broad-based pro-democracy movement. Since then, Whitehall’s official line is that, yes, regrettable incidents have occurred, and some problems remain, but fundamentally the Bahraini government is now embarked upon a substantial programme of reform to address concerns over political and human rights. Nothing to see here, in other words, please move along. Unfortunately for British diplomats and politicians, however, there are somewhat more authoritative voices, such as the world’s leading human rights NGOs, whose analysis of the situation is very different.
In November 2012, a year after the regime’s announcement of its reform programme, Amnesty released a report describing the official pledges as a “pretence” which had effectively been “shelved” in favour of an extension of the anti-democratic crackdown. It accused the US and UK of “satisfying themselves with the narrative of reform while ignoring the reality of repression”, failing to match periodic expressions of concern “with any meaningful actions or consequences”. Sure enough, when David Cameron welcomed King Hamad to Downing Street a few months later, his spokesman announced that the Prime Minister had "encouraged His Majesty to continue to demonstrate substantive progress in all areas" of reform.
In January of this year, Human Rights Watch observed that the situation in Bahrain had actually “regressed further in key areas in 2013”, with repression continuing, along with credible reports of torture in detention. Joe Stork, HRW’s deputy Middle East and North Africa director, remarked that “Official talk of reform is a joke at a time when peaceful critics of the government are labelled terrorists and kept in jail”. That same month, as the Duke of York paid an official visit to Bahrain to promote British business, Amnesty commented that the regime had “long ago reneged on promises to reform, and the country is now trapped in an endless circuit of protest-clampdown, further protest-further clampdown…., [with] protesters - including children - given very long prison sentences". In defiance of all this, the British Ambassador in Manama described 2013 as “a very good year for the UK/Bahrain bilateral relationship, [which] has a great future”, apparently irrespective of whether there is any prospect of the Bahraini government treating its people like human beings.
British officials attempt to maintain the pretence of “reform” and “progress” by hailing empty gestures, while ignoring the lack of substance behind them. They routinely praise the King’s “National Dialogue”, describing it as “the only way to promote peace and stability” and urging “all sides to remain engaged in the process”. They do not explain how Bahrainis languishing behind bars for expressing the wrong opinions might engage in this dialogue, or so much as mention the numerous prisoners of conscience held by the regime, let alone call openly for their release. Human Rights Watch describes the National Dialogue itself as “deeply flawed”, noting that all but nine of the 27 participating groups are linked to the government. At the start of this year there were thirteen high-profile leaders of peaceful protests in prison for exercising their right to freedom of expression, while the regime had effectively suspended the right to assembly. All in all, these do not seem the most promising conditions for a “national dialogue” to take place.
Elsewhere in Whitehall’s Potemkin village of Bahraini reforms, then Foreign Office Minister Hugh Robertson said on a recent visit that he was “pleased to see that UK expertise is helping to make a real difference, particularly on the creation of a Police Ombudsman” with British assistance and advice. But as Human Rights Watch point out, the Ombudsman has taken no steps to hold senior officials accountable for the extensive repression, violence and torture of the past three years, or the culture of impunity within the security services. Amnesty has noted that the regime has taken formal steps such as "issuing new regulations for the police including a code of conduct and providing human rights training" – just the sort of thing that Whitehall likes to draw attention to. However, in practice, “the police continued to arrest people without warrants, detain them incommunicado for days or weeks, deny them access to lawyers, and allegedly subject them to torture or other ill-treatment, including beatings, kicking, verbal abuse and threats of rape” – just the sort of thing British diplomats prefer to downplay, so as to maintain the fiction that the situation is all in hand.
The Foreign Office’s latest Human Rights and Democracy Report contains a country case study on Bahrain headlined “progress on reform implementation”, which describes the “overall trajectory on human rights” as “positive” (albeit “some areas of reform have been slower than we would have hoped”). Human Rights Watch has explicitly rejected this characterisation, with Joe Stork describing Bahrain today as a place where “a police officer ….who kills a protester in cold blood or beats a detainee to death might face a sentence of six months, or maybe two years, while peacefully calling for the country to become a republic will get you life in prison”. Furthermore, “stability and reform will remain out of reach in Bahrain as long as its allies, notably the UK, offer uncritical support in the face of mounting evidence of abuses”.
One word Maryam AlKhawaja uses repeatedly when discussing the situation in Bahrain is “impunity”. The impunity of the police officer who can kill or torture with no fear of appropriate sanction; the impunity of the senior officials who can preside over this vicious system for years and never face any form of justice; and above all, the impunity of the regime itself, which continues to benefit from its deep alliances with the Americans and the British. The reason Maryam draws attention to this multi-layered impunity is a simple one: impunity is the enabler of repression.
As Nicholas McGeehan of Human Rights Watch wrote earlier this week: “Bahrain’s western allies bear significant responsibility for the worsening situation in Bahrain and for the calamitous circumstances facing activists in the country. Had the UK, the US or the EU exerted real pressure for Abdulhadi al-Khawaja’s release and the release of other high-profile dissidents…, Abdulhadi might not be on hunger strike, and his daughter might not be in Isa Town prison awaiting a hearing to decide her fate. Instead, Bahrain’s allies have opted for a disastrous policy of appeasement and acquiescence, and they have remained largely silent in the face of human rights violations that they would loudly denounce were they taking place in a less strategically important country”.
There is a common misconception that the British state supports Saudi Arabia and the various Gulf regimes in spite of their repressive nature. In reality, it backs them because of it. The Gulf region is regarded as too strategically important for Western allies there to be allowed to go wandering off in an independent direction, so the various kings and emirs must remain in place, whatever the cost to their subjects. Reforms are only desirable to the extent that they help to shore up the fundamental status quo. When the ‘Arab spring’ came to Bahrain in early 2011, its calls for civil, human and political rights represented, by definition, an existential threat to over a century of British foreign policy.
Torture in Bahrain, therefore, is not, as Whitehall would have it, a policy-failure attributable to a lack of training. Torture and physical repression are inherent, necessary functions of an anti-democratic state. This of course has been well understood for decades, and indeed, it was a previous generation of British official in Manama who helped set up the entire apparatus of repression to begin with. In Stork’s words, “Bahrain’s problem is not a dysfunctional justice system, but rather a highly functional injustice system”.