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An Interview with Two Exiled Dissident Bahraini MPs

Jalal and Jawad Farooz's asylum application was accepted, so why is Britain still mates with Bahrain?

Jawad Farooz pictured holding a poster in Bahrain

It’s been over a year since the Bahraini government voided the papers of Jalal Farooz and his brother Jawad, both former opposition MPs. On the night of the US presidential elections, the Bahraini Ministry of the Interior announced it had cancelled the citizenship of 31 opposition leaders, for the crime of “damaging the security of the state”. Jalal Fairooz remembers the day he found out he was stateless – a legal non-entity without a country to call home. He was in London, giving a course in management studies at the time. “My wife called me from Bahrain at midnight,” he said. “She’d seen a statement on local TV. Without any prior notice, my citizenship had been revoked.” There was no legal process and no warning. Apart from a handful who had citizenship elsewhere, they were now stateless. “I was never interrogated, I’ve never been asked to go to a police station, nothing,” said Jalal. “Then my citizenship was revoked. I was in shock.”


Last week, after 13 months of limbo, the brothers were both granted asylum in the UK, which is probably just as well given the repression, torture and death that dissidents have met with since Bahrainis joined the Arab Spring in 2011 and demanded democratic reforms from the government. To all intents and purposes, the Bahraini regime is an absolute monarchy. The reforms haven’t been forthcoming, which is less than can be said of the streams of blood and teargas as the government has cracked down on protests that, after a peaceful beginning, have turned violent. A recent report by the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee, cited “evidence of very serious human rights abuses by the security services during the events of 2011 and the two years since”. By granting both Jawad and Jalal asylum, the UK government has tacitly recognised that the brothers face persecution for their political activities – which makes it all the more weird that it seems so relaxed about human rights abuses on the tiny Gulf island.

The Foreign Affairs Committee highlighted Bahrain’s strategic location which, together with its growing economy and willingness to host our forces, apparently make it “vitally important” to UK military and commercial interests. When Foreign Secretary William Hague addressed a recent conference in Manama, he was gushing about the two nations’ 150-year-old ties. “As you… work to build the long-term stability that Bahrainis deserve, we will be a staunch friend to you: supporting the sustained, comprehensive reform you are seeking, and calling on all sides to play a constructive role in political dialogue,” he told senior officials there. It's quite difficult for the opposition to play a "constructive" role in an dialogue when their leaders face intimidation and imprisonment.


Jalal Farooz

I met Jalal and Jawad at a cafe on a London university campus. Both are former Members of Parliament, with the Al Wefaq party. They were smartly dressed in suits and ties. They didn't really live up to my ideas about what exiled political dissidents look like.

As with most coffee dates, it wasn’t long before we were talking about Bahraini sectarianism. The country's government, security apparatus, army and civil service are all dominated by Sunnis, despite most of the population being Shia. Jawad, who had been part of parliamentary committee looking at land use, told me that areas populated by Sunnis are targetted for investment. Then there are the 28 Shia mosques that were demolished by the government in response to the pro-democracy protests, just in case you weren't convinced that the regime is sectarian. In an attempt to reduce the numerical advantage of the Shia population, the government has granted citizenship to thousands of foreign Sunnis. These include Bedouins from eastern Syria, Pakistanis, Yemenis and, says Jawad, 30,000 or so members of the Dosari tribe of eastern Saudi Arabia. “During the elections, they send buses to Saudi Arabia, bring them to Bahrain to vote for the regime’s candidates, then send them back,” said Jawad. “Some of them are registered to imaginary homes in Bahrain.”

Protesters on the march in Bahrain in 2011 (photo courtesy of Al Wefaq News Agency)


Opposition leaders – including Sunni ones – insist that the 2011 Bahraini spring was not motivated by sectarianism. When sit-ins started at the Pearl Roundabout, Bahrain’s revolutionary hub and answer to Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Sunnis and Shias turned up in droves. After all, you don't have to be a Shia to be fed up with government corruption and the lack of basic freedoms. “The protesters didn’t ask for Shia rights, but for democratic rights: a vote for each citizen, an elected government, the separation of powers, security for all and an end to discrimination,” said Jawad.

The regime responded with a brutal crackdown. A report commissioned by the King himself later found that government forces had used arbitrary detention, forced disappearances, torture, psychological abuse and “unnecessary and excessive force”, all of which – predictably – resulted in the deaths of civilians. Saudi Arabia sent in 1,000 troops to “protect government installations". The deadlock continues. Bahrain recently bought more tear gas canisters than it has citizens and Amnesty International has accused the government of torturing children. In response, anti-government forces have been upping the ante, specifically by attempting to blow up police.

At the begining of the uprising, Jalal divided his time between guiding journalists covering the protests and travelling abroad for lectures. Jawad was still an MP until February 2011, but resigned in protest at the bloodshed and put his efforts into organising demonstrations. In May 2011, he was arrested. Like many others, he was beaten (with lengths of hosepipe), tortured and humiliated. He says the guards insulted him for being Shia, and called him a traitor: “One guard put a pistol to my head as if he was going to fire it. He said, ‘I could shoot you now, but I don’t want to spill your disgusting blood.'"


Jawad in London

Jawad was released, but he was charged with calling for unauthorised marches and “inciting hatred against the regime”. In a break between court hearings, he visited London. While he was there, he found out he was no longer a citizen of Bahrain: persona non grata in his own country. “Since I went into exile my first daughter was married and my first grandson was born. At least now I can go to countries close to home and meet them,” said Jalal. “But I can still see all the atrocities and the unhappy situation of the people of Bahrain. The harsh measures by the regime will keep me from celebrating being granted asylum.”

As for the British government, its continued courting of a regime that it feels the need to protect opposition MPs from is surely an indictment of stunning diplomatic hypocrisy.

Previously from Bahrain:

The Bahraini Government is Still Repressing Its Critics

Bahrain Just Bought More Tear Gas Canisters Than it Has Citizens

Explaining Human Rights to Bernie Ecclestone