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Bahrain’s foreign minister has asked the British Government to get Denis MacShane to shut up about its human rights record. Here he explains why he will not be silent

by Denis MacShane
Saturday, February 25th, 2012

I am used to endless lies and criticism from the British National Party and its favourite blogger, as well as the ­Islamist ideologues who hate my work on anti-Semitism, and the offshore-owned press obsessed about Europe. But this is the first time that a government, Bahrain, has written to the British Government asking the Foreign Secretary to shut me up.

In a 17-page open letter to William Hague, Bahrain foreign minister Shaikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa accuses me of making several “demonstrably misconceived” statements about the political ­situation in Bahrain without visiting the country. It is true that I have not been to Bahrain recently, but I don’t need to go to Syria or Iran or North Korea to know there are serious human rights issues in those countries.

The latest news from Bahrain remains ever more worrying. There are regular pro-democracy demonstrations which are severely repressed by the police. In a new tactic, the police are raiding individual homes and throwing tear gas canisters inside. Amnesty International reports that as many as 30 people may have been killed as they choked to death in confined spaces.

Last month, 24-year-old Yousif al-Mawaly was arrested, tortured and then dumped in the sea. Photographs of his body seen by the BBC appear to show abrasions and bruises consistent with beating.

Human Rights Watch has reported that Bahraini riot police beat a prominent human rights activist, Nabeel Rajab, head of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, as he was leaving a peaceful protest last month. Rajab said that the police attacked him using their fists and batons at about 8.30pm, as he was walking toward his car. “I noticed a number of riot police behind me. They were all in uniform. They started beating me and I fell on the ground. I told them that I was Nabeel Rajab, hoping that they would stop, but they kept beating and kicking me.”

The interior ministry stated on its Twitter account that riot police had found Rajab “lying on the ground” and transported him to the Salmaniya Medical Complex for treatment.

The Bahraini government has refused to allow independent human rights ­observers from entering the kingdom, on the first anniversary of the Bahrain uprising a year ago. Members of the ruling Khalifeh family are trying to kid the international community that they are willing to move on human rights.

They attach great store to the Bassiouni Commission which reported last November on the widespread killing and torture after the democracy uprising that began a year ago. The 500-page report itself is valuable, but few if any of its recommendations have been implemented. Some low-ranking police officers have been suspended, including five Pakistani and two Yemeni police officers. But the men at the top of the royal family who authorised the brutal crackdown, and the senior officers who oversaw torture and killings, are still in place.

The Bahraini government is now hiring human rights lawyers or former police officers including Commander John Yates, who had to leave Scotland Yard in disgrace, to come to Bahrain to assure the world that all is well. But women doctors and nurses are still on trial after they were arrested in their hospitals treating the wounded last year.

Dr Fatima Haji, for example, was charged with acts of terrorism, stealing blood from hospital and harming the public by spreading false news. She was sentenced to five years in prison on these trumped up charges worthy of Stalin’s show trials.

The Bassiouni Commission has called for the release of all political prisoners – democracy protesters who simply tweeted or attended meetings but took no part in violence. Again, the Khlaifeh regime rejects this key recommendation and refuses to negotiate with the opposition to create a balanced human rights commission that can investigate and punish those responsible for last year’s crimes and end the continuing violent repression of human rights.

The Khalifeh elite tries to portray the dark hand of Iran as being behind the protests and it is true that there is now an ugly Sunni-Shia split with a turn to violence, including throwing petrol bombs at the police, by the extreme end of the opposition. But the Khalifehs have brought this on themselves by their refusal to allow the educated Bahraini citizens to move towards a more democratic system. Local mayors say they do not even have the power to build a footpath. Despite lip service paid to increasing democracy and a fortune spent on overseas public relations companies and buying-in prominent Westerners to say things are not all that bad, Bahrain remains the privately-owned torture-permitting fiefdom of a royal family and its retainers who cannot live with modernity.

Foreign policy realists point out that, compared to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain is freer and more liberal. The West, in the shape of the United States and the United Kingdom, has major military interests in the country. Just as Russia will not criticise Syria, which buys its arms and allows the Russian Navy a warm water point, so the British Foreign Secretary, so ready to denounce repression in Libya (not today’s repression, of course, but that of Colonel Gaddafi) or Syria, is ­utterly silent when it comes to Bahrain ­beyond the minimal tight-lipped expression of support for the so-called reform and dialogue efforts of the torturers and killers. Diplomats in other European Union countries have noticed this double standard in British foreign policy and are commenting on it openly.

It is clear that the Grand Prix cannot and should not take place in Bahrain while the stench of tear gas and the cries of the tortured hang over the country. The politics are a disaster, with both Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran looking down on tiny Bahrain. But that cannot excuse continued torture, tear-gas killing and the holding of political prisoners in jail.

In the 1970s, similar arguments were made by realists about the military juntas of South America, with their penchant for torture and dropping opponents out of helicopters into the sea. In the 1980s, the Conservatives supported apartheid South Africa as a force for stability. The left often found excuses for communist regimes, ­despite their human rights abuses.

As the populations of Arab nations ­became urbanised, educated and open to the world, the absurd medieval rule of a handful of monarchs and princes, or kleptocratic dictators became unbearable. What comes next may be very ugly, especially as the mullahs and the military forge alliances to create a Pakistanisation of politics. It has always been possible for huge amounts of money to be made, especially in London, for the agents who serve such repressive states as Bahrain. But things are on the move and writing letters to the Foreign Secretary complaining about an MP who raises these issues is a waste of ink.

Bahrain has a short period to see if the ruling dynastic group can find a way to some constitutional settlement with ­opponents who reject violence. That is what British officials, human rights lawyers and other should be arguing for. But it may already be too late.

To read the Arabic version of this article, please click here