Lawyers in London are threatening a judicial review of military assistance and support provided by Britain to the Bahraini government, VICE News has learned.
The proposed legal challenge concerns the construction — announced in December — of a new, permanent UK naval base in Bahrain, which is expected to accommodate Britain's new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers and its latest Type 45 destroyers.
The base is thought to mark Britain's re-emergence in the Gulf, nearly half a century after a penny-pinched Labour government withdrew British forces from all military outposts east of Aden, in present-day Yemen. The naval expansion is seen as part of a broader push by Britain to project naval capacity in the Gulf region — from which it can keep a steady eye on Iran.
But solicitors at Deighton Pierce Glynn, in London, are challenging the legality of the move: On the grounds that Britain did not conduct a review of human rights risks before agreeing to build the base.
The challenge comes nearly four years after the start of the "Bahraini Uprising," in which thousands of mostly Shiite Bahrainis protested peacefully in the capital of Manama against the ruling Sunni government. The uprising was forcefully quashed by Bahraini officials, who imposed martial law and killed dozens of dissenters.
"Your security is our security," declared British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, signing the agreement to construct the base, alongside Bahrain's Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa.
Since 2011, around 15,000 protesters have reportedly been arrested; some 3,000 remain in custody. Protesters continue to confront the authorities, but on a much smaller scale than in 2011.
The move also comes amid mounting anxiety about human rights abuses across the kingdom. Human Rights Watch's 2015 Annual Report notes that Bahraini authorities use "lethal and apparently disproportionate force" on peaceful demonstrators, and tend to imprison government opponents "on vague terrorism charges."
Today, British lawyers are asking the government to hand over documents that might shed light on the precise nature of military and security cooperation between the UK and Bahrain.
"If [the government] has nothing to hide," said Deighton Pierce Glynn lawyer Sue Willman, "why is it refusing to release documents about what assistance is being provided and to whom?"
In December, the UK announced a "landmark" deal to build a £15 million ($22.2 million) permanent naval base in Bahrain, where the US Navy hosts its Fifth Fleet. Bahrain will reportedly pay for most the base's construction, though Britain will cover its operating costs.
Bahrain is viewed as a strategic bulwark against Iran. It is also a partner of the United States and allied Gulf countries in their air war against the Islamic State. "Your security is our security," declared British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, signing the agreement to construct the base, alongside Bahrain's Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa.
But the move was quickly condemned by a number of human rights organizations.
On December 8th, 56 Members of Parliament declared themselves "appalled that Britain has signed an agreement with the government of Bahrain…This announcement will be deeply upsetting to all those who have suffered human rights abuses by the government of Bahrain and its officials, and will serve to send a message that the UK Government is not interested in justice, rule of law and reconciliation in Bahrain."
Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, also condemned the announcement. "The Bahrain government is not paying for the base; they are paying for silence," Rajab told VICE News. "And the British government are paying back."
Shortly after the deal was signed, lawyers at Deighton Pierce Glynn were contacted by Moosa Mohammed, a Bahraini human rights activist who was granted asylum in Britain in 2006. Mohammed wanted to challenge the validity of the base agreement.
"The British public deserve to know why the UK government is collaborating so closely with Bahrain, a country which has a terrible record on human rights," he said in a statement provided to VICE News.
On February 24, lawyer Sue Willman sent letters to Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and Ministry of Defense (MOD), asking for detailed information about how and by whom the British naval base will be used. Such disclosures have thus far been scant.
Willman and her colleagues argue that Britain's use of the base amounts to justice and security assistance to Bahrain — and thus, that Britain was legally obliged to conduct a human rights assessment of Bahrain before agreeing to build the facility. Under Britain's "Overseas Security and Justice Assistance Guidance" (OSJA), the government must consider whether overseas assistance "might directly or significantly contribute" to a violation of human rights or international humanitarian law.
Moosa Mohammed's lawyers told VICE News that, shortly after sending the letters, they received a three-page response from British government solicitors — arguing that "the defense arrangement does not involve the provision of assistance to Bahrain," and thus that London did not need to conduct a human rights review.
Neither Mohammed's lawyers nor the FCO would disclose the government's full response. But UK Minister of State Mark Francois delivered a similar line of argument to Parliament on March 2: That the defense agreement "does not involve the provision of assistance to Bahrain, and therefore no [human rights] assessment was required."
Lawyers counter that without knowing exactly how the naval base is going to be used, they can't determine whether or not its construction constitutes "assistance" to Bahrain. And so, last Wednesday, the lawyers wrote to the government a second time, demanding "full disclosure" — by this Friday.
"We are concerned that the Government has not provided any detailed information or documents to confirm what the base will be used for or why the Bahrain government is funding its development," lawyer Chessie Aeron-Thomas, who is also working on the case, told VICE News.
The letter argues that Britain has a"very high" duty to diclose relevant documentation, including: "the naval base agreement; documents about the use, purpose and funding of the base; documents or evidence concerning whether the sale of defense and security equipment between the two states was a consideration in the decision to enter into the agreement; and all documents concerning the current, past and future training provided by the UK Government to Bahraini military, police and security services."
Lawyers say that once they see those documents, they can decide whether to take further legal action — and whether to demand an urgent judicial review of the UK-Bahrain deal. In the extreme case, lawyers would seek an injunction on the agreement, to halt further work on the naval base.
Contacted by VICE News, a spokesperson for the FCO said that the government would not comment on the request for documents.
Beyond the base, Britain is also a major arms exporter to Bahrain. British arms sales to Manama have reportedly increased since the start of the Bahraini Uprising. 2014 sales allegedly totaled £18 million ($26.7 million), and included hand grenades and machine guns. Last year, Britain classified Bahrain as a "priority market" for weapons sales.
The UK government says that it would never export equipment that "was likely to be used for internal repression purposes." But some MPs have urged the government to restrict weapons sales to countries "where there are grounds for human rights concerns."
The United States has similarly continued mass arms sales to Bahrain.
Britain has also come forward with direct government aid. According to a recent parliamentary disclosure, the FCO provided "in the region of £1.5 million ($2.2 million) worth of support to Bahrain's reform program" in 2014.
Britain's line on Bahrain is that the country is, slowly, improving its human rights record — and inching towards judicial reform. And that "the Government is right to pursue a strategy of engagement with Bahrain."
But four years after the Bahraini Uprising kicked off, things are not looking good in Manama — and Bahrain has been thrust into a precarious state of perpetual and bloody revolt. Petrol bomb-wielding dissenters stage small-scale clashes around the kingdom. Some are countered by the government with lethal force and dead-of-night raids in Shiite-majority neighbourhoods.
Police abuse of protesters is widely reported. Amnesty International has chronicled the assault of children as young as 13 who are detained for participating in pro-democracy rallies, saying that they are "blindfolded, beaten and tortured… threatened with rape."
In February, Jane Kinninmont, a senior research fellow at the London-based think tank Chatham House, told VICE News that Bahrain's clamp down on the opposition has "only intensified since the base was announced…The base has probably given the government more confidence."
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