Foreign AffairsWritten evidence from Bahrain Freedom Movement

Summary

1. We, in the London-based Bahraini opposition, have several reservations about the FCO’s policy towards the political crisis in Bahrain. We believe that based on a long-held British position in the region, the FCO has apparently sought to explain developments within those narrow views and has often ignored the new realities or failed to uphold the often-promoted principles of human rights, justice and democracy, particularly since the beginning of the Arab revolutions.

2. While appreciating the need to protect British interests and balance them with other ethical and ideological considerations, it is our belief that the FCO’s links with the GCC countries enables UK to play a leading role in modernizing the autocracy without jeopardizing British interests. It is also our view that the present policy may only alienate potential friends; consolidate dictatorship and strip UK of the moral high grounds that it could achieve should it choose to take a slightly different path.

3. We urge the British government to engage positively with the Opposition in order to neutralize its stance seen to be supportive of a repressive regime.

Background

4. The Bahrain Freedom Movement is part of an opposition alliance called the “Alliance for a Republic” which is a coalition of groups working inside and outside of Bahrain. Currently, all of its senior member, with the exception of myself are in jail, including academic Dr Abduljalil Singace, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, Hasan Mushaimi, Abdulwahab Hussain, all sentenced to life imprisonment. In line with the popular revolutionary movements that swept Bahrain and the Arab world, calling for an end to dictatorial regimes, we felt the need to demand fundamental political reforms in the country through peaceful means. Please see Appendix 1 on a historical chronology of BFM’s evolution during the past three decades.

5. The Bahrain Freedom Movement has always been ‘moderate’ in the real sense of the word. In the past it had called for the reinstatement of the 1973 Constitution and expressed hope that the present ruler would start a new phase in Bahrain when he took power in 1999. Senior figures of the movement met with the ruler but have all realized that he was incapable of reform. With varying degrees of conviction among its members, it is clear now that none, of any persuasion, has faith in the present leadership to carry out reforms compatible with the needs of the time. The FCO has played no positive role to cap the excesses of the Alkhalifa ruling family, for historical and political reasons.

6. Our support base has increased dramatically post-February 14 because FCO’s refusal to engage with all factions of the Bahraini opposition prior and post-uprising.

7. For the past 15 years, the FCO has refused to meet officials of the Bahrain Freedom Movement. Apart from one or two meetings in the nineties they have turned down any request for a meeting. The FCO’s misguided policy on Bahrain led to Lord Avebury in 1998 to publish some of the correspondence he had with FCO in a book he titled “Brickwall” citing the lack of positive policy responses from FCO officials.

8. In 2010 large numbers of Bahrainis were detained by the regime. It is my belief that if that onslaught did not occur, the Revolution would not have flared up so ferociously as it created a lot of pent up anger. A meeting with FCO was requested by Arraign, the Committee to pursue violators of human rights. The request was granted. On the day of the meeting, an official called one of the Arraign members and requested her not to include Saeed Shehabi in the delegation. That was both provocative and undiplomatic.

9. Since the revolution erupted the FCO has continued its refusal to meet with the opposition working outside the regime’s frameworks. It is pity that UK, with its long-standing links to Bahrain would miss the opportunity to play the role of a neutral broker and would meet only those who work within the regime’s system. UK’s interests cannot be fulfilled by this process of exclusion.

10. The FCO continued its policy of exclusion in its engagement with the London-based opposition. It consistently refuses to engage with, meet and attend opposition seminars and press conference held in London despite invitations accorded to them.

FCO’s Current Policy Position

11. The present approach by senior ministers at FCO, like Alistair Burt, has not convinced Bahraini activists about Britain’s concerns with human rights:

UK failed to endorse the statement issued in September at the Human Rights Council and signed by 27 member states.

FCO has not expressed an opinion on revoking the citizenship of 31 Bahrainis on November 2012.

FCO insisted on allowing the invitation of Bahrain’s dictator, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, to the royal wedding, three months after the eruption of the Revolution. There was a furor in the media, prompting the dictator and his son, the Crown Prince, to cancel their trip to UK. But it was only a temporary measure at a time when the regime was deeply engaged in torture, killings, destruction of mosques, detaining and torturing medics and imprisoning athletes. A year later, the FCO included the dictator and his most notorious son, Nasser, on the guest list to the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations. He was asked not to attend the official dinner at Buckingham Palace but was received for lunch at Windsor Castle.

The Prime Minister, David Cameroon, also received Bahrain’s dictator several times which elicited angry response from his victims, one of whom interrupted the dictator’s car as it left Downing Street.

The FCO policy of reacting to events in Bahrain take the following tones. When the regime commits a crime (of killing or torture) the FCO is often “concerned”. But it will condemn unreservedly a Bahraini youth when he faces attackers on his home, his family, his dignity, with stones or petrol bottles.

How effective or realistic is FCO’s “quiet” diplomacy?

12. Often the FCO would reply to correspondence with regards to its dealings with what it terms “allies” like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia saying that it preferred quiet engagement to get results in matters relating to human rights and political reforms. This has been repeated over the years to justify the lack of action by the FCO in promoting democracy or defending human rights in those countries. In three decades of opposition to Bahrain’s dictatorship, no real success could be claimed by the FCO in its attempts to reform the Alkhalifa monarchy. The country has moved from bad to worse in terms of political progress. The 2001 highly-acclaimed “reform programme” has only laid the ground for the greatest ever revolution in Bahrain’s history. This has solidified the conviction that the said programme was a failure from beginning to end. If the FCO took that as a flagship of its “quiet diplomacy” then it could secure very little credit for it as it has yielded almost nothing. Within few years of this sham “democracy” people rose up to demand real change. This time their demands have not been confined to the re-instatement of the 1973 Constitution but for the right to self-determination, writing a new constitution and electing their own government. The FCO could not identify with these demands and has never supported them or the popular movement behind them.

13. The Bahraini regime continued its onslaught on people. It called on the Saudis to intervene in March 2011. The FCO did not raise an eyebrow when a foreign army invaded a sovereign country, attacked its people, cracked down on peaceful demonstrators camping at the Pearl Roundabout, demolished their mosques and imposed an unprecedented reign of terror. The FCO failed to live up to the expectation that it would uphold international law, defend powerless people and stand up for aggression. To the Bahrainis, the Saudi incursion is nothing less than occupation, similar to that undertaken by Saddam Hussain in Kuwait in 1990. Yet the British saw it differently and continued to support the regime in every way. They kept offering their “ally” all the security, military and political support it needed to crush the peaceful movement. In one way or another it facilitated its aims by sending John Yates alongside the American cop, John Timoney. Early this year, it helped them to secure the services of two senior advisors; Sir Daniel Bethlehem KCMG QC and Sir Jeffrey Jowell QC. They were dispatched ostensibly to oversee reform developments, however we are yet to see what their achievements are.

14. The FCO has continued defending the ruling Alkhalifa regime without hesitation, often exaggerating what it calls “reforms” which Bahrainis have felt none of their benefits. Almost every dirty weapon of personal or collective punishment is still being deployed in the presence of the British experts and in front of the eyes of the UK Ambassador in Manama. Arbitrary detentions, torture, collective punishment, unrestricted use of lethal chemical and tear gases, shotguns and other forms of killing. Shia are now marginalised more than ever and systematic policies amounting to no less than “genocide” are being implemented.

FCO’s Faith in False Promises of Reform

15. One year after the BICI report was published with its recommendations, it is clear that FCO has failed drastically in taking a stand with regards to implementation of these recommendations. It has personnel on the ground and a new Ambassador who has become totally supportive of the Alkhalifa dictatorship and doing very little to work for people’s real demands for democracy and respect of human rights. Chief among these recommendations are the immediate release of the senior figures of the opposition, jailed and tortured for their opinion and stands, and ending the policy of impunity granted to torturers and killers of innocent Bahrainis. The FCO has always hailed and exaggerated the smallest of steps taken by the regime, but failed to condemn it for continuing the same policies it had exercised prior to the BICI report. The leaders are still incarcerated with one prominent figure suffering from Cancer. Mr Obama last year called for their release in one of his most important speeches, yet David Cameron has done little to publicly condemn the Bahraini authorities.

16. [***] had Lymphoma Cancer for which he received satisfactory treatment at the Royal Marsden Hospital in 2010. He was prescribed a course of remission treatment. Upon his return in February 2011 he was arrested and his remission treatment stopped. He was tortured with the others despite his old age and illness. After a lot of pressure from himself, his family and local and international NGOs he was referred to a specialist who confirmed the recurrence of Cancer. The FCO has hitherto taken no steps to assist in the case of [***].

Vilification and Harassment of London-based Bahraini Opposition

17. In July 2009 two serious attacks on members of Bahraini opposition took place. The first was 9th July when [***] were set upon by three young men at an alleyway between Euston Station and Chalton Street where they were staying. Three police cameras were in the vicinity and must have picked up the assault. The attack was reported to the police who refused to view the CCTV. Two days later the house of Dr Saeed Shehabi was subjected to arson attacks in the early hours of Sunday 12th July. Police were called. All available circumstantial information was given to the police including a tip off of “an imminent attack” that had been received on Tuesday 7th July, two days before the assault on the two Bahrainis. The name and phone number of the source of the tip off was also provided to the police. Yet no conclusive results were obtained. It was clear that the attacks had been carried out on orders from the Bahraini regime. This is confirmed by a phone call [***] received two days after the attack on himself and [***] telling him that if they went near the Embassy of Bahrain next time they would receive harsher punishment.

18. The warnings by senior members of the regime had often been carried out. A few months ago the Bahraini FM told Nabeel Rajab on Twitter after he had returned from Geneva: Not every time the pot would be safe. Within a week, Mr Rajab was arrested and tortured. The FCO is aware of these facts and that Mr Rajab is the most senior human rights activist in Bahrain. Yet when he was arrested the FCO only expressed “concern”; the usual mantra expected when serious crimes against Bahrainis are committed by the regime.

19. Please see Appendix 2 about my own personal difficulties with the Home Office in gaining my citizenship rights in the UK.

20. Bahrainis in the UK are facing repeated difficulties at ports of entry, being stopped and interrogated for up to four hours each time they travel. These include [***], several members of Al Wefaq Society (who were members of Parliament like Khalil Marqooq, Jassim Hussain and Abdul Jalil Khalil), [***] and others. While some were questioned for one hour, others were kept for up to four hours.

Recommendations to the British Government

1.Re-evaluate its relations with the ruling family of Bahrain with a view to fundamental change of the strategic alliance with un-reformable political system

2.End the policy of exclusion of elements and factions who call for real transformation to a reasonably representative system of government that allows monitoring, accountability and respect of human rights.

3.Change its language of political discourse and engagement, from outright vilification of the ruling family to a more balanced policy that condemns its excesses and use available means of pressure.

4.Stop its new policy of harassment of opposition figures who either reside in UK or are visitors, and end the lengthy interrogations at ports of entry.

5.Stop shielding figures (through official receptions and high-level meetings) who may have been involved in torture and other forms of human rights abuses directly or otherwise like the king himself, his son Nasser and the foreign minister.

6.Work with the opposition to work out a scenario of change that would lead to peace and security with representative regime based on a constitution written and approved by the people.

APPENDIX 1

BACKGROUND: CHRONOLOGY OF OUR EXPERIENCE IN OPPOSITION

1. The Bahrain Freedom Movement was formed in early 1980s with the explicit aim at the time of re-instating the 1973 Constitution which had been drawn out after the British withdrawal from the Gulf two years earlier. At the time we had corresponded with FCO about the serious violations of human rights meted on the hundreds of detainees who had been arrested in 1979, 1980, 1981, 1983, 1984 and 1988. Some of those detained would later become Members of the now-discredited Parliament. Despite numerous requests to meet FCO officials, no positive response had ever been received. The situation of human rights in the eighties had deteriorated sharply with the two notorious officers; Ian Henderson and his lieutenant, Adel Flaifel. Among the victims who had died under torture were Jamil Al Ali (1980), Karim Al Hebshi (1981), Mohammad Hassan Madan (1982), Radhi Mahdi Ibrahim (1984) and Dr Ismael Al Alawi (1986). We had no cooperation from the FCO who insisted that they would prefer “silent diplomacy” to improve the situation. No improvement in engagement has been noted in the following three decades. The eighties were the bleakest of periods in terms of repression and human rights violations. Amnesty International had a good record of documenting some of those violations.

2. After the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the involvement of the Allies to liberate it, the situation marginally improved. In 1992 the first popular petition was signed by up to 300 people calling for: reinstatement of 1973 Constitution and the release of political prisoners. We had numerous correspondences with the FCO but they continued their refusal to meet with us. In 1994 the major uprising started and another black spot in the human rights history in Bahrain was written. By 1995 more than 2300 detainees were recorded at one point by the ICRC. Many were tortured to death including Saeed Al Iskafi (1995), Ali Amin Mohammad (1996), Fadhel Abbas (1996) and Nooh Al Nooh (1998). The FCO continued to refuse meeting Bahraini opposition. Only when the 1997 British elections were held did the first such meeting take place. Two weeks before the elections the late Derek Fatchet met with members of the opposition and promised to take the issue of human rights in Bahrain seriously if Labour won the elections. Few weeks later, he answered question on the floor of the House about Bahrain. He described the Bahraini opposition as “moderate with moderate demands”. With Robin Cook’s assertion that he would base UK’s foreign policy on ethical dimensions UK appeared, for the first time in decades, to regain lost moral high grounds. But that did not last long, and Tony Blair’s policies dominated the scene. He eventually participated in the war against Iran, alongside the US.

APPENDIX 2

PERSONAL EXPERIENCES OF SENIOR MEMBERS OF THE BFM

1. On 22 May 1990 I was arrested together with five others; two Bahrainis and three Kuwaitis. The allegation was plotting to kill Salman Rushdie. The reality was less to do with Rushdie and more to do with extracting information on various subjects. It later became clear that four days before our arrest (ie 18th May) Bahrain’s interior minister had completed a visit to UK with a large delegation. We linked our arrest to that visit. No charges were brought against any of the six; two Kuwaitis were deported to Iran.

2. In 1991 I applied to British Nationality. In 1994 my application was rejected. The letter said “The Home Secretary is not obliged to give a reason for rejection”. When Mohammad Al Fayed’s application for nationality was rejected later he went to the High Court which issued a ruling obliging the Home Secretary to give reasons for refusing applications for British nationality. I did not take such actions.

3. I re-applied in 1998, only to be rejected in 2001. The reason given made me dumbfounded. This is what the letter said:

“You will be aware that naturalisation is not an entitlement but is granted at the discretion of the Home Secretary subject to certain statutory requirements being met. Chief among these is the requirement to be of good character. British nationality law does not define character and in reaching a decision on whether this requirement can be satisfied we must take a fairly broad view, which may include an applicant’s political activities […] After giving your application very careful consideration we find that your activities in opposing the government of a friendly country to be inconsistent with the requirement to be of good character. I regret to inform you, therefore, that your application has been unsuccessful”. The letter was signed “A F Dalton”.

4. However, Lord Avebury challenged the decision and questioned the minister at a debate on nationality and identity at the House of Lords. He was told that the information about me had been supplied by the FCO and that the minister would corroborate the allegations from the Foreign Office. Subsequently, the minister, Beverley Hughes, overturned the earlier decision. He said in a letter dated 14th June 2002:

“Jeff Rooker said when he met you on 8 January that he would obtain corroboration of Dr Shehabi’s involvement with Bahraini Hezbollah and a comparison of the English version and Arabic version of Alalam. I am sorry that it has taken so long to write, but it was necessary to undertake a very thorough assessment of the current state of affairs […] I am pleased to say, on the basis of the report, which has now been received, that I am prepared to reverse the earlier decision and to grant British citizenship to Dr Shehabi”.

The process of obtaining British nationality was subsequently completed.

5. The FCO has a record on its files, false allegations made in 1995 by the then Bahrain’s Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Ghazi Al Qosaibi, who had come to London, concerning the usual unfounded claims against the opposition that it is backed by foreign governments and has a terrorist agenda. He repeated to Lord Avebury the same allegations. Presumably, he said the same thing to the FCO who have kept it on their records and not attempted to correct it as their continued adverse treatment towards us indicates.

[***] = redacted by agreement with the author.

18 November 2012

Prepared 21st November 2013