Bahrain is supported by Britain and the US, along with Saudi Arabia, which helped the brutal dictatorship crush democracy protests.

Ian Black

Bahrain is supported by Britain and the US, along with Saudi Arabia, which helped the brutal dictatorship crush democracy protests.

Britain’s controversial relations with Bahrain will come under scrutiny this week as the king of the Gulf island state faces protests by democracy activists who are fighting back in a public relations campaign to highlight little-reported unrest, repression and human rights violations.

King Hamad bin Issa Al Khalifa is taking part in the Royal Windsor Horse Show at the weekend while Prince Andrew is scheduled to open an exhibition organised by the officially-sponsored Bahrain Expatriate Association – events opposition groups want to exploit.

Al-Wefaq, the country’s main opposition bloc, reported that 170 protesters, including 29 children, were arrested by government security forces in April. At least 58 protesters were injured, mostly by birdshot.

Bahrain stands out against the background of the Arab spring as a country where the status quo has been supported by Britain and the US, along with Saudi Arabia, which in March 2011 led a Gulf force to intervene to help the Manama authorities crush protests.

In 2012 King Hamad pledged to implement the recommendations of an independent commission to examine the roots of the country’s crisis, but reform has been slow and reconciliation talks have been deadlocked for months.

Clashes between police and anti-government protesters are routine, while there have been several bombings in recent weeks. Last month’s Formula One race, cancelled in 2011, also saw demonstrations. Al-Wefaq’s leader, Sheikh Ali Salman, urged supporters to protest peacefully “so the world could hear the voice of the opposition and its demands and the oppression we suffer from in our country”.

The Sunni Khalifa dynasty rules over a Shia majority, giving Bahrain’s conflict a sectarian hue in which the influence of regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia can be felt. Manama regularly accuses Tehran of fomenting trouble, but no evidence has come to light of direct Iranian involvement.

Protests planned around King Hamad’s visit and Friday’s expatriate conference in London are designed to hit back over recent PR gains by the Bahraini authorities. A carefully-managed Manama conference on the “dialogue of civilisations” included Christian and Jewish delegations but excluded mainstream Shia or opposition clerics. The Bahraini government pays millions of pounds to blue-chip PR firms to manage and burnish its image.

“This is a propaganda war in which the government wants to show how tolerant Bahrain is and get positive news coverage,” Mansoor al-Jamri, editor of the independent al-Wasat newspaper, told the Guardian. “When that is achieved they will consider that the tables have been turned against bad publicity about Bahrain from human rights organisations. At the moment things are stagnant politically. Nothing is being offered from the government side. At the same time the official line is that dialogue is continuing.

“The reality is that every week scores of people are imprisoned, there are nightly clashes in Shia areas and life goes on as usual. It’s a war of attrition to see who is exhausted first and who will win the battle for Bahrain’s reputation in London and Washington and Geneva.”

Last November the all-party Commons foreign affairs committee criticised the British ambassador to Manama for echoing the views of the Bahraini government. It also urged the Foreign Office to classify Bahrain as a “country of concern” if its human rights record did not improve. Britain sold Bahrain military equipment worth £18m in 2013, according to the Campaign against the Arms Trade (CAAT). The UK also hopes to sell Bahrain Typhoon jet fighters worth £1bn.

The CAAT urged Prince Andrew to withdraw from the expatriates event. “Royalists and republicans don’t always see eye to eye, but surely one point that everyone can agree on is that it is totally inappropriate for any member of the royal family to use their position to lend UK support to brutal dictatorships like the one in Bahrain,” a spokesman said.

Last month Britain began work on a $16m (£9.5m) expansion of its naval base in Bahrain, which is also home to the US fifth fleet.

“There is growing frustration about the UK government’s increasingly visible support for Bahrain; [It] has a long, dark history of enabling state violence in Bahrain and protecting both British and Bahraini officials responsible,” said John Horne of Bahrain Watch.

In a related development that has been hailed by opposition supporters, the high court in London ruled that Prince Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa could be named in an action seeking trying to overturn the prince’s immunity from prosecution. Prince Nasser is accused of involvement in torturing prisoners. The case was launched in 2012, but a judge had barred identification of both defendant and the claimant. The high court ruled last Friday that Prince Nasser could be named. The still anonymous claimant, an opposition activist, has been given permission to challenge a ruling by British prosecutors that the prince has state immunity from prosecution. The case is due to be heard later this year.

Source: The Guardian

17 May 2014

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