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Britain Calls For Human Rights — Then Embraces a Bahraini Torture Suspect

While paying lip service to supporting human rights abroad, the British government does nothing as its ally Bahrain repeatedly violates them.
Photo by Rick Stevens/AP

Watch the VICE News documentary 'Bahrain: An Inconvenient Uprising.'

In 1920, the British novelist E.M. Forster described his homeland as "an island of hypocrites" and its rulers as people who "built up an Empire with a Bible in one hand, a pistol in the other, and financial concessions in both pockets."

Almost a century later, Forster's indictment aptly describes the British government's current relationship with the Middle Eastern island state of Bahrain — specifically, with the UK government's contrasting treatment of the Bahraini rights activist Nabeel Rajab and alleged torturer Prince Nasser bin Hamad al-Khalifa, a member of Bahrain's ruling family.


After being freed from a Bahraini jail earlier this month, Rajab will faces a trial in January on charges that he offended national institutions when he compared Bahrain's security forces to the violent, sectarian forces of the Islamic State. Rajab has been a thorn in the side of Bahrain's ruling al Khalifa family for years, particularly since 2011's anti-government protests, when the violent response of the security forces to peaceful demands for political reform left scores dead and sparked a crisis that continues to divide the country.

If Rajab's statement offended the Bahraini government, then the international lawyers who compiled the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry report had better watch out, because its findings — which Bahrain's king said he accepted — are just as incendiary as Rajab's comments. The report contained numerous references to torture in detention, "excessive and unnecessary lethal force," and "terror-inspiring behavior" by security forces. Unlike Rajab, however, Prince Nasser will not face trial in Bahrain even though he is one of those accused of being involved in the torture of detainees in 2011.

Bahrain human rights activist faces jail time for a tweet. Read more here.

Meanwhile, a British court decided that the prince's status as a senior official in Bahrain does not make him immune from prosecution in the UK for allegations of torture back home. That ruling in theory might have made Prince Nasser less than eager to step foot on British soil, but he is apparently so untroubled by the threat of arrest that he was recently seen mingling at a charity event at London's exclusive Savoy Hotel. It's not clear if the British government granted Prince Nasser "special mission" status that it claims provides individuals with temporary immunity. But it is clear that the British government isn't remotely embarrassed by its close relationship with the Bahrainis: The day after British courts quashed Prince Nasser's immunity, the British ambassador to Bahrain visited the Prince and had his photo taken with him for the local press.


The British government hasn't shown quite the same sensitivity to the feelings of Nabeel Rajab. When he visited the UK in August, he and his family were detained for five hours at Heathrow Airport, where his 12-year-old daughter and 16-year-old son were fingerprinted and made to pose for "mug shots" before they were allowed to enter the country. The British government has declined to explain why immigration officers deemed this necessary.

In this year's Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) report on human rights, the British government claims it has "supported human rights defenders — courageous people who often face repression and harassment." Not in Bahrain it hasn't, or indeed in any of the oil-rich, strategically important Gulf states to whom the British government is very keen to sell fighter jets.

Unlike the United States — another Bahrain ally — the UK made no public call for Rajab's release in what is self-evidently a free speech case. In fact, since the unrest of 2011, the UK has made no explicit calls for the release of any of the hundreds of political prisoners currently languishing in Bahraini jails, whose unlawful detention precludes the political solution to the unrest that the UK claims to support.

The British government has continually peddled the line that the Bahraini government is on the path to reform — "there is evidence of real efforts being made in areas where human rights concerns remain," claimed the FCO on October 16. (The full statement reads like it was conceived not in Whitehall but in the offices of one of the numerous PR agencies that the al Khalifa pay to launder the stains from their reputation.) But human rights concerns do not merely "remain" in Bahrain; they abound, and there is scant evidence of any genuine efforts at reform.

Watch the VICE News documentary 'Bahrain: An Inconvenient Uprising.'

In a little over two months, a Bahraini court may sentence a courageous man to three years in jail while the British government turns a blind eye, even as it claims to support human rights in Bahrain. There are numerous words one could use to describe this stance, none of which reflect well on the UK government. E.M. Forster, if he were still around, might well have chosen perfidious.

Nicholas McGeehan is a Gulf researcher at Human Rights Watch. Follow him on Twitter: @NcGeehan