When the Independent newspaper published an exposé last week on conditions inside the Bahraini Isa Town women’s prison, it once again brought into question Britain’s relationship with the tiny island kingdom, which frequently violates international human rights laws.
One inmate in the prison, Hajer Mansoor, alleged that she has been singled out to be monitored, barred from observing religious rites during the month of Muharram and prevented from having unmonitored phone calls. “I’ve been suffocating ever since the beginning of Muharram [in September last year]. So not just now. And [they’re targeting] me specifically,” she insists.
Several exiled Bahraini activists, many of whom were granted political asylum in Britain after the Arab Spring protests in 2011, have called on the government in Westminster to stop public funding, arms sales and military cooperation with Bahrain’s monarchy. They say that it makes Britain complicit in human rights abuses.
Since 2012, Britain has spent around £6.5 million of taxpayer’s money on training and funding public institutions in Bahrain. The package, which is logged under “technical assistance”, has been used to train Bahraini police and prison guards on human rights issues and establish institutions to investigate allegations of torture.
Previously, most of this funding came from the British Conflict, Security and Stability Fund (CSSF), though now money is released by the Integrated Activity Fund (IAF), a £20 million a year pot reserved for maintaining British interests in the Gulf States. Both bodies have faced scrutiny over transparency and accountability issues and been referred to as “slush funds” by MPs on the Joint Security Committee.
The CSSF and IAF say that they assess the human rights situation in the country before releasing aid, but a report by the Independent Commission on Aid Impact (ICAI) in March 2017 said that the assessment processes were “inconsistent”, “sometimes superficial” and “often weak”.
In fact, since Britain started the programme of “technical assistance” to Bahrain in 2012, the Gulf state’s human rights abuses have worsened steadily, while British financial aid has increased. In the past eight years, Bahrain has stripped hundreds of people of their citizenship; cracked down on freedom of religion, speech and assembly; resumed the use of the death penalty; and seen prison conditions deteriorate through torture, sexual abuse and medical negligence.
Successive British governments have failed to address evidence of these human rights violations. Senior officials, including former Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Andrew Murrison, have maintained that “the UK is committed to supporting Bahrain-led reform and are confident of its positive impact across a variety of areas including… strengthening the rule of law, and police and justice reform.”
Yet, British increases in funding have coincided with the reversal of reforms. In 2017, as Bahrain resumed its use of the death penalty, Britain granted a 10-year high of 373 military arms export licences. In a rubber stamp of British approval, tantamount to complicity, much of the exported equipment was related to surveillance, facilitating the Gulf State’s use of arbitrary arrest and harassment.
Exports of military equipment to Bahrain have been halted temporarily since June last year, thanks to a ruling by the High Court in London that arms sales to Saudi Arabia and its allies in the war in Yemen are unlawful. Bahrain continues to receive financial and technical assistance from Britain, though, including several training programmes for prison guards and police.
In 2017, the Northern Ireland Co-operation Overseas (NI-CO) programme in Belfast taught Bahraini police how to “command and control” demonstrators, using water cannons and dogs, as part of this training. The not-for-profit, public body also provided instruction for 400 guards in Bahrain’s Jaw prison, while torture and abuse of inmates was taking place. A report by watchdog Reprieve, and the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD), found that cases of human rights violations in the Jaw prison were perpetrated by some of the officers undergoing British training at the time.
The University of Huddersfield is contracted to provide a Masters course in Security Science for students at Bahrain’s Royal Academy of Policing. The Academy has since been called a “torture hub” where, between 2016 and 2019, victims were allegedly subject to beating, sexual assaults, sleep deprivation and threats to the lives of family members.
The British government is not only complicit in Bahrain’s human rights abuses, but is also bankrolling the training of abusers. The lack of punishment for human rights violations, and the tacit approval from British officials who turn a blind eye, is encouraging security personnel to continue to perpetrate these crimes.
Bahraini institutions, including the Ministry of Interior Ombudsman, which were established in 2012 with British support to ensure compliance with professional standards of policy and regulate human rights complaints, have consistently failed to persecute perpetrators. Between 2013 and 2019, the Ombudsman received 5,458 complaints but referred only 495 of those for action.
The Ombudsman has blatantly ignored pleas from detainees to address abuses by security officials, who have enjoyed virtual impunity from prosecution. In one case, a security officer, sentenced to five years in jail in 2012 after shooting a protester and leaving him permanently disabled, had his sentence reduced to six months because of health concerns.
Complaints made by detainees have consistently not been investigated by the Ombudsman, including the case of Bahraini police officer Mohammed Ramadan, who was detained in 2014 for attending peaceful protests. The Ombudsman failed for more than two years to investigate Ramadan’s allegations of torture and coercion to confess, even after he was sentenced to death.
Concerns raised by British MPs four years after Ramadan’s arrest and torture, led to the temporary suspension of his death sentence in 2018, but the sentence was upheld by Bahrain’s High Criminal Court of Appeal on 8 January this year.
As a result of such cases, joint reports by Reprieve and BIRD called on the British government to implement basic human rights conditions for the release of “technical assistance” to Bahrain. Yet, British policy remains unchanged.
Instead, the relationship between Britain and Bahrain has grown closer, with the British Prime Minister and Queen Elizabeth II among top officials to receive the King of Bahrain in recent years. This relationship has become a cause for concern, with Britain seemingly unwilling to take punitive action against a state which features frequently in strong allegations of human rights abuses.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.