Foreign AffairsWritten evidence from the Bahrain Center for Human Rights


84 confirmed deaths have resulted from the uprising and the government crackdown, with 82 listed on the BCHR site1 and two recent cases of a man suffocated with tear gas and a 16 year old run over while being chased by police...

Teargas continues to be used as a weapon of mass punishment, as towns and villages are attacked with excessive quantities, resulting in some deaths. Police have been seen purposefully firing teargas into homes.2

Torture is practiced in official Ministry of Interior detention centers,3 unofficial centers (eg municipal buildings) and upon arrest in the houses being raided. BCHR has continued to regularly report torture in Bahrain throughout 2012.4

BCHR estimates there to be more than 700 prisoners of conscience in Bahrain. This is based on the last reliable figures compiled by us in May5 as well as figures released by Al-Wefaq more recently.6

Approximately 100 arbitrarily sacked workers still have not been reinstated in their jobs.7

Medical treatment is being withheld from prominent political prisoners like Abdulhadi Alkhawaja8 and Hasan Mushaima,9 as well as ordinary detainees like Ebrahim Saleh.10

Only one official has been successfully convicted for the killing of a protester during the uprising, while many more have escaped prosecution.11


1. The Bahrain Center for Human Rights is the main independent human rights organisation in Bahrain. Because of its longstanding criticism of continuing human rights abuses in Bahrain, BCHR is considered a banned organisation and its website is blocked in Bahrain. The group was founded in 2002 by Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, a political exile who came back under the new Emir’s reforms. Alkhawaja was first arrested and the organisation banned in 2004 after he criticised the Prime Minister for the failure of economic reforms. Despite this, international human rights organisations like Amnesty International and Human Rights watch consider BCHR to be a primary source of reliable first hand human rights reporting in Bahrain.

2. Because of their prominent position in supporting the rights of Bahrainis to free expression and association, and for their international advocacy, prominent members of BCHR have been subjected to judicial harassment. Founder Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, who suffered severe torture,12 is currently appealing his life sentence for trying to overthrow the regime, despite no evidence of this. Current President Nabeel Rajab was sentenced to 3 years under Article 178 of the penal code which criminalises ‘unauthorised’ gatherings, even if intended to achieve a legitimate purpose.13 Since all public protest is now banned in Bahrain, this means that any public gathering of 5 or more people is now illegal.

3. BCHR’s vice-President Sayed Yousif al-Muhafda was imprisoned for almost 2 weeks on the charge of “illegal gathering”, but the interrogation was solely related to his speech delivered at the UN human rights council.14 Maryam Alkhawaja, acting President of BCHR, was told there is a warrant for her arrest in Bahrain when she was refused entry to Egypt, also because of her human rights work. She has also been told she is on a second list of people whose citizenship will be removed.

4. None of BCHR’s members have ever advocated violence. Many are people with formal human rights training who simply want Bahrainis to enjoy the rights to which they should under the International Covenants on Civil and Political and Economic and Social Rights, the Convention Against Torture, on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and on the Rights of the Child.15 Bahrain has violated jus cogens norms of international law,16 especially the prohibition on torture. These violations are offences against the international community and law as a whole requiring states like the UK to hold Bahrain, especially as an ally, to account.

5. BCHR is a non-politically affiliated organisation which does not take any view as to what political solution is the right course for Bahrain. Our job is to support the rights of victims of abuse, regardless of background, gender, religion or race, to advocate for the observance of Bahrain’s human rights obligations and to use the only tool afforded by our small capacity—reporting and international scrutiny of violations.


6. The current situation in Bahrain has deteriorated recently, with further repressive measures such as the complete banning of public protest and the removal of citizenship from 31 Bahrainis who have been prominent in their anti-government criticism. This is quite a good example of how Bahrain’s laws are essentially decided on an ad hoc basis by the regime.

7. The UK did not leave Bahrain with a solid, entrenched judicial system independent of the executive. This was one reason Bahrain’s opposition movement was calling for constitutional reform for such a long time, and the vast majority of Bahrainis would welcome the replacement of the constitution unanimously implemented by the King in 2002. Because this goal was frustrated for so long, the demands of the opposition became more radical.

8. The widening gulf in Bahraini society between the al-Khalifas and the rentier class who benefit financially from their rule, and poor and unemployed masses; can only be alleviated by holding the violators of human rights accountable for their crimes.

9. There has been speculation17 that the absence of any outlets of opposition, given the breakdown in the parliamentary process and dialogue between different parties, would eventually lead to more violence. There have been alleged bombings in Bahrain which have been blamed by the government on the opposition. These incidents should be investigated independently rather than being used as an excuse by the government to justify its repressive actions.18 Unfortunately, in the current climate, this is unlikely to happen.

10. Furthermore, there have been some signals that the government may be willing to intensify the crackdown. They have talked about prosecuting other opposition leaders,19 and have stopped people attending prayers at particular mosques because the worshippers might use the event to protest.20 This specific targeting of people because of their faith constitutes religious discrimination21 and significantly raises sectarian tensions in Bahrain.

11. In a more long-term view, numerous reports have chronicled the continuing dismal standard of human rights in Bahrain since the publication of the BICI report, from an IFEX mission report22 to Physicians for Human Rights23 as well as a number of follow-up reports from BCHR.24

12. The UN’s Universal Periodic Review of Bahrain proposed many other recommendations for political reform in Bahrain, many of which were accepted by the regime.25 The UK must hold Bahrain to these promises, as well as to those made under the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry.

UK Government Engagement

13. The UK’s engagement in trying to resolve the Bahrain crisis in the last year has had no positive impact whatsoever. The UK Embassy in Bahrain has been silent, and its new Ambassador since September 2011 has been invisible. The FCO’s human rights report 2011 continued to peddle the idea that reforms were taking place, long after this was seen to be wishful thinking. It said “we are starting to see positive reforms in Jordan, and in Bahrain with its steps to implement the conclusions of its commission of inquiry into the violence we saw earlier in the year.”26 It also described the opposition movement in Bahrain as ‘sectarian’, despite the reactions of the Bahrain government targeting people because of their religious background.

14. The tone of the case study on Bahrain overall was incredibly naive and seemed to take it for granted that if Bahrain said it would set up a National Human Rights Commission tasked with promoting and enhancing human rights, then that would happen and could already be counted in a list of reforms. This is despite the fact that Bahrain is notorious for setting up human rights QUANGOs whose sole purpose seems to be to harass legitimate human rights activists at talks and UN events.

15. The UK government has quietly sought to arrange for mediation between the Bahrain regime and opposition, hoping to kickstart dialogue.27 These efforts have all failed.28 The UK Foreign Secretary says that all sides should “take steps to reduce tensions”,29 yet doesn’t acknowledge that this is incumbent upon the government, as they are the ones with all the power. Everybody seems clear about what the most important step to reduce tensions would be: freeing political prisoners in order for an inclusive dialogue to take place. Unfortunately, the UK is seriously lagging behind in arriving at this obvious conclusion; it has been an out-of-touch and ineffective bystander to the unfolding crisis.

16. Minister Alistair Burt MP has said that he encourages all sides to engage in an inclusive and constructive dialogue without preconditions, ignoring the fact that most of the principal opposition stakeholders are behind bars. There can’t be dialogue unless you have someone to have a dialogue with and it means that what is going on in Bahrain now is a monologue. The use by the FCO of phrases like ‘we are disappointed’ and ‘we are concerned’ give the observer of UK foreign policy the impression of institutional inertia. The UK uses similar excuses as the Bahraini regime to justify its reluctance to place Bahrain on the list of countries of concern, which the FAC’s own report criticised.30 It still seems to want to believe that some reforms have or will take place, despite the obvious resistance of the regime to anything but cosmetic institutional rearrangements.

17. The FCO has parroted the regime’s line that the reason there is no progress is because of street violence. The fact is that with most of the opposition leaders in jail, there is nobody to control the street protests and stop them becoming violent. Nevertheless, the majority of protests remain peaceful despite the escalation of government repression and the imprisonment of all major advocates of non-violent protest. Even the US has stated that political prisoners should be freed in order to facilitate dialogue, yet the UK is not even willing to go this far. This institutional lack of interest by the UK in a constructive engagement with the cause of the crisis in Bahrain extends to the UN Human Rights Council, where BCHR members have found the US delegation willing to talk and listen to us, while the UK delegation would rather avoid even giving us 10 minutes of their time to hear our concerns.

18. If the UK is truly concerned by the situation of Nabeel Rajab and other political prisoners, it is because we believe their “offences” were political, not criminal. If this is the case, the UK should hold Bahrain to its stated goal of implementing the recommendations of the BICI report, rather than releasing statements such as:

19. “We are concerned at the length of sentence handed down to Mr Nabeel Rajab for charges relating to comments made on social networking sites and for incitement of illegal rallies.”31

20. The UK should say that it believes Mr Rajab and others are political prisoners, which Bahrain committed to release in line with Recommendation 1722 (h) of the BICI report.32

21. BCHR recommends that Bahrain be designated a country of concern. The UK should be able to criticise its allies’ performance in terms of its human rights commitments, especially when such criticism might help bring about reform and stability.

22. There are other things that designating Bahrain to be a country of concern would also improve. At the moment, UK security and PR companies, do business with Bahrain without considering the human rights implications because it is a UK ally.

23. [***]

24. It does not help calm the situation in Bahrain, and it is arguably violating accepted standards of corporate social responsibility for UK and European companies to be assisting repressive governments to spy on and infringe the rights of legitimate human rights advocates. Designating Bahrain a country of concern would go some way to persuading companies not to do that kind of business with the Bahraini regime.

25. The UK should avoid sending security and police advisers to Bahrain, or encouraging ex-officers to go there as advisers. This continues a long tradition of the UK providing institutional support to a regime to maintain the status quo, rather than doing anything to encourage reform. Sir Charles Belgrave was the UK’s representative and adviser to the Emir from 1926–1957 and was eventually forced to leave after people came to see him as a hindrance to decolonisation and reform. John Yates, the former Metropolitan police assistant-commissioner is now in Bahrain and his presence appears to give a UK imprimatur for the police force to continue the same kind of repressive tactics they have used since the uprising began.33 Torture is continuing in Bahrain and if British officials have been involved in the investigations which led to this practice, they could be liable to prosecution for complicity in these offences. The FCO has also provided ‘human rights training’ for Bahraini officials,34 missing the point that the judicial system in Bahrain is institutionally corrupt. This kind of institutional support does nothing to assist the reform process and the UK should consider withdrawing it in future.


26. The UK has supported the rights of citizens of Bahrain in the past, when Bahrain held a referendum to decide on their status as an independent nation, free from the competing claims of the British Empire, and the Persian Empire which claimed the territory as its own. Bahrain was intended to be a state based on a constitution limiting the monarchy’s power, just as in the UK. But no sooner had Bahrain become independent than its constitution was abrogated and authoritarian, direct rule began. Bahrainis are still fighting for the same thing they wanted at independence, a state where the individual is protected by law from the unfettered power of its hereditary rulers.

27. Believing in human rights, democracy and the rule of law as the best form of government for Bahrain, we are convinced that change will come eventually. Free speech, freedom of association and all other rights in the ICCPR are necessary for this change to happen peacefully.

28. Protecting civil society, public discourse, a free press, impartial and transparent justice and independent health and educational institutions allow for dialogue and crisis resolution. These things are in the interest of the long term stability of the Gulf region. Continuing repression and violence can only lead to greater regional instability.

29. When it comes to torture, the UK is still in an uncomfortable position criticising Bahrain for torture, since it has been the UK who has repeatedly given human rights training to Bahraini officials, and because of the UK’s history of involvement, having supplied the notorious torturer Ian Henderson who was implicated in torturing Mau Mau Kenyans before leading torture interrogations in Bahraini jails in the 90s. The CPS refused to prosecute him despite clear and widespread evidence.35

30. When Bahrain and the emirates were British protectorates in the 19th and 20th centuries, Britain controlled their foreign policy. It seems to many observers that the tables have effectively been turned and UK foreign policy on the Gulf region is to some extent moulded by the concerns of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia obviously feels that it can blackmail the UK Parliament into ignoring the UK’s problematic relationship with the Gulf.36 Since it is clear that, whatever the Government’s response to the Committee’s report and the strength of the criticism it contains, the UK’s economic relationship with the Gulf states will not be altered, we hope the Committee will be forthright in their treatment of the continuing abuses of human rights, of which there is abundant evidence.

31. Being a good friend and ally is not all about being a ‘yes man’. Anachronistic rentier states like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia need to wake up to the changing nature of their world. Reform, however slow, is better than none at all, and any benefits of the limited constitutional experiment of 2002–2011 in Bahrain have been obliterated by the conflict in the past year. It is not in the interests of regional stability for the UK to keep telling Bahrain what it wants to hear, signing defensive agreements and selling teargas, surveillance equipment and birdshot,37 and the damage done to the UK’s international reputation as a result is unquantifiable. If the UK’s number one priority in the Gulf is stability, it is clear that the current policy towards the region is not working. As Christopher Davidson writes:

32. “Of the six [Gulf] monarchies, Bahrain’s has by far the bleakest future, with little hope that the ruling family can restore sufficient legitimacy to ever govern again without resorting to martial law and extensive repression”.38


Call for the immediate release of all political prisoners.

Call for NGOs to be allowed to send observer missions and trial witnesses to testify on behalf of political prisoners.

Cease arms sales until Bahrain displays a willingness to initiate reform.

In particular, there should be an international moratorium on the lethal use of birdshot and tear gas against civilians if not a ban of sales of such weaponry to governments like Bahrain.

The UK should sign on to joint statements at the UN Human Rights Council like the one made in June 2012 which was signed by many Western states.39

Designate Bahrain a country of concern so that companies are discouraged from providing military and security assistance to Bahrain which might aid the government in repressing dissent.

Consider withdrawing institutional and security assistance from the Bahraini regime contingent on some meaningful initiation of dialogue and reform.

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

20 November 2013


2 May 2012—
Oct 2012—



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38 Christopher M Davidson, After the Sheikhs: The coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarches, p 232


Prepared 19th November 2013