Foreign AffairsWritten evidence from Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC)


IHRC was set up in 1997. Further information about its work can be found on its website Its research and publications on Bahrain include background studies, briefings and trial and country observer reports, including:

Concerns regarding the BICI, November 2011:

Broken Promises: Human Rights, Constitutionalism and Socio-Economic Exclusion in Bahrain, 2010:

Report of the Trial Monitor in the Ma’ameer and Adary Park Cases, Bahrain, 2010:

Report of the Trial Monitor in the Karzakan and Ma’ameer cases, Bahrain, 2009:

1. Almost a year to the day that the “Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry” released its report and recommendations to end three decades of human rights abuses in the island monarchy, recent events suggest that the government is not only failing to implement reforms but has intensified its crackdown against the opposition.

2. Launched to much acclaim the report contained 26 recommendations designed to set Bahrain on the path of political reform and reconciliation. Although critics accused the BICI of shying away from recommending the root and branch overhaul of the political system, the report was widely welcomed as a step in the right direction. The optimism appears to have been misplaced. One year on few of the Commission’s recommendations have been fully implemented. Crucially, the international community—including Britain—is showing little appetite to drive forward the reform agenda.

3. A new report by the Project on Middle East Democracy released last week evaluating the government’s progress in implementing the BICI recommendations makes grim reading. Only three recommendations have been fully implemented with “no meaningful progress” on the most important six—accountability for officials responsible for torture and severe human rights violations, the release of political prisoners, prevention of sectarian incitement, and the relaxation of censorship and controls on free expression.

4. The BICI recommendations followed three decades of government repression of opposition and was prompted by renewed political violence that erupted in February 2011 resulting in the deaths of at least 35 people and complaints of torture, police violence and the unlawful detention and dismissal from work of hundreds more. The Commission’s main recommendations were for the release of all political prisoners and the relaxation of controls on freedom of expression to allow the opposition a greater say in the government dominated national media.

5. Both of these recommendations have fallen on deaf ears. In fact over recent weeks the government has stepped up its campaign of political repression of opposition leaders. Earlier this month it revoked the citizenship of 31 exiled clerics, dissidents and activists including Ali Mushaima and Saeed el-Shehabi on the grounds that they represented a threat to national security. Bahrain’s Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid al-Khalifa’s justification that repeated abuse of the right to freedom of expression could no longer be tolerated indicated the limited extent to which the government is prepared to open up channels of dissent.

6. There are yet other signs that the gap between democratic rhetoric and authoritarian practice is widening. For the first time since last year’s state of emergency, the National Guard is back on the streets protecting “strategic locations” or more correctly demonstration routes and sites which hold symbolic significance for opposition parties. In October the government imposed a ban on all protests citing “public safety” and also threatened the main opposition party al-Wefaq with legal action for staging a march for which it had been declined official permission. And instead of releasing political detainees the al-Khalifas have leaned on the politicised judiciary to confirm convictions secured at the height of last year’s troubles against 20 opposition activists.

7. The moves have evoked strong condemnation from international human rights groups. Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa programme called the verdicts “another blow to justice” adding that “the Bahraini authorities are not on the path of reform, but seem rather driven by vindictiveness.” In August after a court had sentenced the prominent human rights activist Nabeel Rajab to three years in prison for organising “illegal gatherings” the UN’s Special Rapporteur on human rights Margaret Sekaggya said: ”The sentencing of Nabeel Rajab represents yet another blatant attempt by the government of Bahrain to silence those legitimately working to promote basic human rights.

8. The picture emerging from Bahrain is of a regime that is using the BICI as a cover to continue repression of political dissent and calls for genuine reform. To consolidate the credibility it gained by commissioning the BICI the government has also appointed high-powered western advisors, among them senior Britons. The appointments are strategic; they maintain the illusion of western assistance in a reform project that is at best superficial and at worst a charade. Trading on its position as Bahrain’s historic patron—Bahrain was a British protectorate until 1971—Britain has provided the island emirate with a succession of security advisors such as the notorious Ian Henderson, removed from his post after allegations that he had tortured political detainees during the uprisings of the 1990s. The latest arrival is former Metropolitan Commissioner John Yates as advisor on police reform. But the al-Khalifas appear to want Yates less for implementing reform of the police as recommended by the BICI than for his contact book and ability to access British officials. Last June he accompanied the interior minister Rashid al-Khalifa to diplomatic engagements in London including a meeting with then junior Foreign Office Minister Lord Howell.

9. Indeed the British government has missed few opportunities to rub shoulders with Bahraini royals at a time when critics say it should be using its influence to pressure the family into making necessary reforms. In July the head of Bahrain’s Olympic Committee Nasser bin Hamad al-Khalifa was allowed to visit London despite multiple allegations that he had personally beaten and jailed Bahraini anti-government protestors. The Islamic Human Rights Commission had written to the FCO requesting that Nasser al-Khalifa be denied entry but received a disturbing reply that seemed to blame Bahraini protestors and brush aside the allegations of human rights abuses.

10. A few weeks later David Cameron met with King Hamad bin al-Khalifa in London for the third time in his tenure as prime minister. Perhaps one of the items on their agenda was the defence treaty the two countries would sign in October, committing Britain to protecting the emirate from external aggression. In any event the PM did not say anything about how the Arab Spring was playing out in Bahrain and how Britain could assist those in the country campaigning for human rights and democratisation.

11. Britain’s refusal to apply pressure on its close ally was also in evidence at the United Nations. Last June it joined the US in refusing to sign a statement—signed by 27 other countries including Germany and France—asking the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to establish an office in Bahrain and agree a comprehensive cooperation plan with its rulers. Maryam al-Khawaja, the acting President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and Deputy Director of the Gulf Center for Human Rights branded the decision “a disgrace” and said that “silence from such an important trade partner spells out permission, casting a shadow on the UK’s commitment to free expression and human rights.”

12. Bahrain’s military reliance on Britain places Britain in an ideal position to exert pressure on its ally but it seems to be more intent on securing lucrative contracts at the expense of human rights. British companies currently export everything from sniper rifles to silencers and software for spying on opposition activists. Writing recently in the New Left Project, Kristian Coates Ulrichsen from the London School of Economics derided Britain for becoming “a symbol of the double-standards of Western policy toward the Arab uprisings, where the withdrawal of support for dictatorial regimes in Libya and Syria stands in contrast to the enabling of autocratic rulers in the Persian Gulf.” The parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee acknowledged in its recent report—FCO’s Human Rights Work in 2011—that ministers should be bolder in acknowledging contradictions between the UK’s interests overseas and its human rights values. It is time that recommendation started being put into practice.

13. As the Arab Spring spreads, the approach is short-sighted and risks placing Britain on the wrong side of history. No autocracy can resist popular pressure indefinitely and when the al-Khalifas eventually leave, as their counterparts have done in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen, the memory of who supported them will likely impact on economic relations for a long time to come.

14. The IHRC recommends that the government takes its stated responsibilities toward human rights more seriously and use its historic ties with Bahrain to pressure the government into implementing the BICI recommendations and comply with international human rights obligations. In particular the British government should not hesitate to publicly raise its concerns about Bahrain as and when the opportunity presents itself. Britain is an important trading partner for Bahrain and should use its position to exert leverage on the government to implement the reforms to which it has committed itself.

Saudi Arabia

IHRC was set up in 1997. Further information about its work can be found on its website Its research and publications on Saudi Arabia include background studies, briefings and country reports, including:

Saudi Arabia’s Political Prisoners, Towards a Third Decade of Silence, 2011:

1. The Arab Spring has largely bypassed Saudi Arabia. Fearing the winds of change raging around the region the regime has battened down the hatches and continues to resist growing demands for political and social reform.

2. The ruling al-Saud family continues to exercise absolute rule in the kingdom with little criticism from the international community. To the contrary it remains insulated from international pressure by virtue of its position as the west’s biggest oil supplier. Ensuring Saudi citizens and residents enjoy basic human rights is clearly of less concern to the international community than the uninterrupted flow of oil from Riyadh.

3. Saudi Arabia’s initial response to the Arab Spring speaks volumes about its perception of the uprisings as a threat to its own long-held power. Instead of embracing the new Zeitgeist, it rushed to intensify internal repression of dissent to pre-empt any internal mass movement from arising. Freedom of expression and association bore the brunt of the government attack.

4. In February 2011, the government arrested five clerics and opposition activists who had announced the formation of the country’s first ever political party. The new “Umma” party had called on its website for the holding of elections, more transparency in government decisions and an independent judiciary. The arrests recalled the detention in 2007 of a group of activists who had demanded a constitutional monarchy. Most of them are still detained.

5. In April 2011 King Abdullah amended the 2000 Press and Publications Law to make illegal any speech that “contradicts rulings of the Islamic Sharia [law] or regulations in force,” or “call[s] for disturbing the country’s security, or its public order, or … caus[es] sectarianism or … damage[s] public affairs in the country.” The new restrictions also included a prohibition on damaging the reputation of the chief mufti, members of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, or any other government official or government institution. The law also covers electronic publications and significantly curtails the ability of bloggers to write about political events.

6. More recently, the government put on trial Mohammad Fahad al-Qahtani, an economics professor and one of the co founders of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, on charges relating to his human rights activities. The charges included “breaking allegiance to the ruler”, accusing the judiciary of allowing confessions extracted under torture, describing Saudi Arabia as a police state and turning international organisations against the kingdom. According to the Arab human rights group Alkarama, Al-Qahtani was also convicted of sending “false information presented as facts” to the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. Al-Qahtani’s fellow co-founder Mohammed al-Bejadi had already received a four-year jail term in April 2012 after being convicted of similar charges.

7. The issue of political prisoners is a pressing one. The Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) believes that some 30,000 people are currently in detention as a result of their political views or activities. Many are imprisoned without trial or access to lawyers and torture is routine. According to the IHRC the issue of political prisoners is an “epidemic which has not spared any sector of Saudi society”. Even those simply calling for the government to end arbitrary detention and ensure fair trials have not been spared. In July 2011, Islamic law expert Dr Yusuf el-Ahmad was arrested for posting calls on Youtube for an end arbitrary detention and supporting the families of those wrongfully detained.

8. Many of those detained without charge and/or tortured are members of the country’s minority Shia sect of Islam. Comprising about 10–15% of the total population they are concentrated in the east of the kingdom and have long complained of economic neglect and religious discrimination. With the dawn of the Arab Spring they were emboldened to renew calls for greater freedom, human rights and better living conditions. Peaceful protests, which broke out in the February 2011 in the Eastern Provinces demanding the release of nine Shia men detained without trial for over 13 years on suspicion of involvement in a 1996 armed attack on a US military facility in Khobar, were brutally put down. Scores of demonstrators were arrested. Since the beginning of 2011, over a dozen Shia have been killed by police. Majority Shia towns such as Awamiya which are seen as hotbeds of opposition remain saturated with Saudi police. Checkpoints dot the streets and armoured vehicles are a constant reminder of the state’s willingness to use force to put down any show of dissent. According to the Adala centre for Human Rights based in Qatif police have shot 71 protesters since 2011 and arrested over 700 people including children.

9. The Saudi regime has also cracked down on public displays of the Shia branch of Islam by arresting people displaying Shia banners or slogans. Last September Saudi authorities razed a mosque associated with an outspoken cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, with a long history of criticising state excesses and discrimination against the Shia. Nimr was shot and arrested in July and charged with “instigating unrest” even though he has publicly called for resistance to the regime to be expressed in words rather than through violence.

10. Women’s rights also continue to cause concern. Under Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system in many cases many women cannot even access medical treatment without the permission of a brother, father or husband. The ban on females driving motor vehicles remains in force despite increasing defiance from women. In May 2011, Saudi authorities arrested Manal al-Sharif after she took to the wheel in a public display of resistance. Al-Sharif appeared in a video showing herself driving. She was subsequently charged with “tarnishing the kingdom’s reputation abroad” and “stirring up public opinion.” Police released al-Sharif from prison after she appealed to King Abdullah. Perhaps as a result of internal pressure from women, the King has pledged to allow women to vote in municipal elections from 2015 and also appoint them as full members of the Shura Council, an advisory body with limited powers including suggesting laws to the King.

11. Foreign workers, the majority of whom offer a ready pool of cheap labour to Saudi employers, form the backbone of the domestic economy. Numbering 8 million in total they represent over half of the workforce. Yet they remain drastically underpaid, exploited and abused. They reside and operate in Saudi Arabia under a sponsorship system which is routinely abused by their employers to subject them to what Human Rights Watch calls “slavery-like conditions”. Passports are routinely confiscated, wages delayed or withheld, and forced labour commonplace. Female domestic workers are at the forefront of this abuse suffering forced confinement, food deprivation, and severe sexual, psychological and physical abuse.

12. Despite the wide-ranging and numerous human rights concerns Britain has had little to say to the Saudi regime, which remains one of its most important regional allies. The silence sits uncomfortably with the British PM’s apparent embracing of the Arab Spring at the United Nations in September 2011. “As people in north Africa and the Middle East stand up and give voice to their hopes for more open and democratic societies, we have an opportunity—and I would say a responsibility—to help them,”? That responsibility would not seem to extend to Saudi Arabia, Britain’s biggest trading partner in the Arab world. In January of this year Cameron visited Saudi Arabia to “broaden and deepen” relations with the kingdom, despite its avowed opposition to the overthrow of regional dictators in Yemen, Egypt and Tunisia. Britain continues to be a major supplier of arms to Saudi Arabia and Cameron’s visit was intended to increase sales of the latest technology and weaponry. This despite questions by the Parliamentary Committee on Arms Control related to their end use; fears remain that some of the weapons might be used to crush dissent and civil unrest. The committee asked why, when there was unrest in the country in 2011, licences for a range of equipment had not been revoked. “Why does the UK believe that the assurances relating to end-use will not be breached?” the committee asked.

13. The fact that the Saudi Arabian government has taken umbrage at this review of bilateral relations itself suggests that it is not prepared to brook any criticism of its human rights record, even from its allies. Indeed last October the BBC quoted unnamed Saudi officials as saying that Saudi Arabia was “insulted” by the review and that they were “re-evaluating their country’s historic relations with Britain” and that “all options will be looked at”.

14. IHRC believes that Britain’s commercial ties with Saudi Arabia are important to the British economy and many jobs depend on the deal currently in place. But these ties should not prevent Britain from applying pressure on the Saudi government to improve human rights in the country. At the moment the balance is far too heavily weighted in favour of commerce.

15. The IHRC recommends that the British government strives to strike a better balance between its trade relationship with Saudi Arabia and pressuring the government in Riyadh into human rights reforms. This should include publicly reminding Saudi politicians that the continued abuses in the kingdom are not acceptable and wherever possible making commercial deals contingent on measurable human rights progress.

19 November 2012

Prepared 21st November 2013