Human rights groups have claimed Bahraini pro-democracy activists in London are being “systematically persecuted” by the British government, with specific accusations made against Whitehall departments, the Metropolitan Police and a high profile member of the House of Lords.
The accusations come as King Hamad of Bahrain, whose family have ruled the tiny Gulf state for over two hundred years, visits the UK. His presence has been protested by human rights groups and Bahrain activists.
The claims have also been backed up by senior officials from Human Rights Watch as well as several Middle East NGOs.
“We believe we are being systematically targeted,” says Dr Saeed Shehabi, a leading member of the Bahrain Freedom Movement living in London. Shehabi has been sentenced in absentia to several life imprisonment terms in Bahrain, and was convicted alongside thirteen other opposition leaders who are currently serving their sentences in Bahrain. “We believe there is a programme of systematic persecution that the British government is carrying out for the Bahrainis against our community.”
“I would give anything to return to a free democratic Bahrain,” said Ali Mushaima, another prominent activist whose father has been imprisoned in Bahrain, “but the British government have become an obstacle.”
Both men claim that Bahraini exiles have been harrassed by Metropolitan Police officers, ignored by Foreign Office officials, detained without explanation by UK Border Authority officials and defamed by a British member of the House of Lords, who recently visited Bahrain with a delegation of Labour MPs and is known to be close with the al-Khalifa family.
“It has been almost impossible to secure direct meetings with the any Ministers at the Foreign Office,” says Shehabi, whose Bahraini citizenship was revoked along with thirty one others in 2012, a move condemned by human rights organisation.
“The message we get is that meeting with us would be the red line in the British relationship with the Bahraini regime,” he adds.
The UK government has historically enjoyed a close relationship with Bahrain, which gained independence from the British in 1971. It is a key trade as well as military partner, with a heavy British military presence based in Manama, the capital of the tiny Gulf state.
Despite dozens of meeting requests, pro-democracy activists have only managed to secure one meeting with a Foreign Office Minister and that the Foreign Office was taking special measures to avoid publically meeting with Bahraini exiles.
The regime’s repression of the pro-democracy movement has been a controversial topic since the Pearl Roundabout uprising of February 2011 — with over a hundred deaths attributed to an ongoing government crackdown, amid frequent admonishments from human rights groups.
“We get the sense that the British government are very hostile towards us,” says another activist, Ali Mushaima, who staged a protest on top of the Bahraini embassy in 2012.
“My father is serving a life sentence for supporting the peaceful revolution,” Mushaim adds, “and is being denied treatment by prison guards for a cancer condition.”
“The British have offered no humanitarian assistant to the thousands of political prisoners in Bahrain. Instead, they accuse them of being terrorists” says Mushaimi.
The Liberal peer Lord Avebury has told Memo that the London Metropolitan Police are also accused of stopping and searching Bahraini exiles routinely, under spurious “terrorism-related offences.”
“The Independent police Complaints Commission has taken over a complaint I made about the unlawful use of stop and search powers against Bahraini exiles,” said Lord Avebury. “On March 25^th , the High Court granted permission for a substantive hearing on this and similar complaints by cases against the Metropolitan Police.” Lord Avebury also told Memo that the police had refused to hand over the results of their own investigation by the IPCC.
Two Bahraini exiles had their London home raided by the Metropolitan police last week at around 6am on Tuesday morning. The men were both released without charge. A Twitter account understood to be operated by the Bahraini regime announced the men had been arrested, two hours before the arrest took place.
“How did they know?” said one activist. “This is a concerted effort to smear pro-democracy activists as violent terrorists, a smear in which the British government is colluding.”
Opposition activists have also called on the government to stop threatening Bahraini asylum seekers with deportation.
Husain Parweez and Mohammed Sudaif, prominent activists who fled Bahrain in February, were detained on arrival in February by UKBA officials and threatened with “fast-track” deportation, despite showing documents which proved they would face long politically-motivated prison sentences if they returned.
Bahrain Watch and the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, based in London, had to launch an emergency legal challenge in order to prevent the mens deportation.
Dan Carey of Deighton Pierce Glynn solicitors, who represented both activists said:
“These two Bahraini activists came to the UK fleeing torture and flagrantly unfair criminal trials. In allocating them to the Detained Fast Track process, the Home Office was not only falsely imprisoning them, it was placing them at real risk of a prejudiced asylum claim and a return to torture and an unfair trial.
“On no sensible view were their cases straightforward ones suitable for this process. I am ashamed that this is how the UK welcomes brave Bahraini pro-democracy activists. This policy must change.”
A third Bahraini, Isa al-Aaali, iscurrently in an immigration removal centre ready for deportation, has been sentenced to 5 years imprisonment in Bahrain and will face high risk of torture if returned, activists claim. He has one of a hundred detainees at Harmondsworth immigration detention centre currently on hunger strike protesting poor conditions and unfair treatment.
Pro-democracy activists have also slammed Lord Gulam Noon, the Labour peer implicated in the cash-for-honours scandal in 2006 and nicknamed “The Curry King” on account of his food business empire. He admits to being personal friends with the al-Khalifa family and is a frequent guest speaker at the Bahraini-British Business Forum.
In an article entitled “Traitors Not Refugees,” published in an English-language newspaper in Bahrain, Lord Noon claimed that Bahraini pro-democracy activists living in London “are not refugees or asylum seekers, but are connected with the external agencies that are against the Kingdom.”
Noon was leading a delegation of MPs from the UK Parliament to Bahrain, a country where he also told reporters that he planned to retire. He added “I consider myself half Bahraini.”
“In the UK, we are fully aware of the situation where our judicial system is allowing citizenship too easily,” he went on. “We are trying to review the possibilities of a change in the legal system, as we see that many are abusing this privilege,” said LordNoon, adding that this would take time. Lord Noon holds no formal brief for immigration policy.
Lord Noon has also been criticised by activists for making a speech in the House of Lords in March, in which he said the Bahrain government had made good progress on promised reforms after the revolution began in February 2011.
The speech provoked a letter of complaint from the human rights group Bahrain Insitute for Rights and Democracy.
Sayed Alwadaei. , a Bahraini working at the NGO and living in London, told Memo
“I encourage Lord Noon to respect his title as Lord and admit his friends crimes, which were documented by Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) orderd by Bahrain’s government.”
“It is an insult to the exiled Bahrainis in the UK, who escaped from the torture in Bahrain,” Alwadaei added.
Lord Noon was approached for comment but did not respond.
The government of Bahrain frequently claims a promised package of human rights reforms (known as BICI) are being gradually implemented – but human rights activists contest this.
According to the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, 95 people have been killed by security forces since the start of unrest.
The country still sees weekly clashes between security forces and protesters, and the question of torture, as documented in the government inquiry into the Pearl Roundabout protests, has yet to be adequately addressed according to Human Rights Watch. In fact, according to the human rights watchdog Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain, none of the 176 reforms the monarch promised to make after the bloody uprising of 2011 have been fully implemented.
Members of the Foreign Office have also been accused of ignoring human rights concerns in Bahrain. The country was not include in a list of “countries of concern” by the FCO Human Rights Report 2013.
Nick McGeehan of HRW, told Memo “It has appeared for some time that this British government will go to some lengths to cosy up to their allies in Bahrain.”
“Bahrain has a hard-earned and well-deserved reputation for torture, which is the reason British courts have granted asylum to so many of its opponents and critics.
“The UK should not be doing the bidding of deeply repressive Gulf autocrats.”
“It seems that Cameron rather quickly forgot his promise,” said Sarah Leah Witson, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division, referring to a speech he gave at the United Nations in September 2011, in the wake of the Arab Spring.
“Cameron promised “stand up against regimes that persecute their people” and pledged “we are on your side,” to those in the Arab world who “want greater democracy greater freedom, greater civil rights.”
“Now, the UK is back to business as usual, as if the uprising in Bahrain never happened at all.”
Lord Avebury, commenting ahead of next weeks meeting attended by Prince Andrew and King Hamad of Bahrain, also commented “Its entirely wrong that members of the royal family should be embroiled with a regime that is proved to torture dissidents, arbitrarily sentence human rights campaigners to life imprisonment, and imprisons bloggers who criticise the al-Khalfa rulers.”
A Foreign Office spokesperson told Memo “FCO officials in London and in Bahrain regularly meet a wide range of individuals and organisations from members of Shia political societies, Sunni political societies, parliamentarians, businessman, NGOs, journalists, and key members of civil society. Our engagement is constructive and focused on supporting political and human rights reform in Bahrain.””We continue to raise our concerns in private and have frank conversations with the government. The UK will continue to offer technical assistance where appropriate to help the authorities deliver on their commitment of full implementation of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry. We see this as the most constructive way to support progress on reform and improve the human rights situation in Bahrain.”