Rt Hon James Cleverly MP
Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Affairs
King Charles Street
February 9, 2023
Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, Middle East Minister
Philip Barton, Permanent Under-Secretary
Paul Williams, Director of Open Societies and Human Rights
Stephen Hickey, Director of Middle East and North Africa
Roderick Drummond, British Ambassador to Bahrain
Dear Rt Hon James Cleverly MP,
We write to you with serious concern that the Foreign Office’s 2021 Human Rights and Democracy Report (the report), published on 9 December 2022, is fraught with inaccuracies that whitewash Bahrain’s appalling human rights record and risk enabling abusers. We ask that you issue a correction of the report that provides an accurate representation of human rights concerns in Bahrain.
We are very troubled that the report misrepresents the grave reality of human rights in Bahrain, and amounts to misinformation that could be used by the Government of Bahrain as propaganda. We fear that should you fail to correct its misleading content, the report will serve to embolden perpetrators of abuse in Bahrain. We are further concerned about the support provided by the UK government to bodies involved in human rights violations in Bahrain and/or covering them up via the Gulf Strategy Fund (GSF), including the Ministry of Interior and its Ombudsman office, the Prisoner and Detainees Rights Commission, the Special Investigations Unit, and the National Intelligence Agency Ombudsman.
The UK government has repeatedly refused to provide adequate information about the support it is providing in Bahrain. In 2018, the UK Foreign Affairs Committee raised serious concerns about UK security and justice assistance to Bahrain, questioned the effectiveness of this assistance, and urged that the FCO “review the current situation in Bahrain…and report its findings to us to further consider whether funding should continue.”
To our knowledge, no such review has taken place. There have also been no meaningful assessments undertaken of the human rights risks associated with this assistance - with Overseas Security and Justice Assistance (OSJA) assessments repeatedly failing to identify these risks or comply with other steps set out in the OSJA guidance, such as seeking assurances or Ministerial consultation.
The findings of human rights organizations directly contradict your report’s assessment of human rights in Bahrain. For example, in their World Report, Human Rights Watch states that there was “continuing heavy repression” in Bahrain in 2021, whereas your report alleges “Bahrain took positive steps in 2021.” There were also a number of more specific contradictions between what is stated in the report and what has been stated by human rights organizations regarding the human rights situation in Bahrain in 2021, described below:
- Grave misrepresentation of children’s rights in Bahrain
In its report, the government gives Bahrain unreserved praise for its Restorative Justice Law for children as a “progressive step” without acknowledging the failures of this law to protect key rights enumerated by the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the serious violations of children’s rights that took place in Bahrain during 2021, despite these having been brought directly to the government’s attention on multiple occasions. While the new legislation increased the age of criminal responsibility to 15 years old, Human Rights Watch and the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) found that the law specifically allows for children to be detained for participating in unlicensed public gatherings, putting them at risk of detention “merely for exercising their right to peaceful assembly,” whilst failing to guarantee key due process rights since “the law does not prohibit questioning or interrogating children without the presence of a lawyer or their parents.” In June, Human Rights Watch and BIRD reported that thirteen children in Bahrain were beaten and “threatened with rape and electric shocks.” These abuses were facilitated by bodies that benefit from UK Government funding through the GSF.
These violations were repeatedly brought to your personal attention in your role as Minister for the Middle East and North Africa when in 2021 Human Rights Watch called upon you to correct the parliamentary record, in accordance with the Ministerial Code, over statements that were inaccurate and publicly named children in connection with their alleged crimes in breach of the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Justice (known as the Beijing Rules). When commenting upon your statements on the cases of these children, Human Rights Watch asserted: “We believe that if the Bahraini children in this case were to follow your instructions [which encouraged them to contact Bahraini oversight bodies implicated in whitewashing their abuse], they could be at even greater risk of abuse.” Since that time, you were copied on correspondence to the Foreign Secretary from BIRD and Human Rights Watch on 14 February 2022 which again called for parliament to correct the record regarding another “erroneous statement” you made about children’s cases. It is thus gravely concerning to see that your report continues to present a misleading picture of children’s rights in Bahrain, whitewashing serious abuses that are being committed.
- Misleading and inaccurate information on Bahraini political prisoners & unqualified praise of alternative sentencing
We also note with deep regret that the report gives unqualified praise to alternative sentencing in Bahrain, although the use of this legislation has been discriminatory as it does not benefit political prisoners. Eligible high-profile political prisoners are routinely overlooked for release under this legislation. Indeed, the US Department of State found that “Prominent political opposition figures serving life sentences did not benefit from application of the alternative sentencing law.”
Further, it is concerning that your report provides misleading information on the case of political opposition leader Hasan Mushaima, stating that he was “offered an alternative sentence in September 2021 but chose to decline,” whilst failing to mention that this offer was made conditionally on the provision that Mushaima not speak publicly after his release, should he accept, in what would be a blatant violation of his right to freedom of expression.
Your report’s depiction of the 17 April 2021 attack on political prisoners in Jau Prison is also misleading, and once again omits information regarding serious human rights violations that have been repeatedly brought to the UK government’s attention, including by 10 parliamentarians in a 29 April 2021 letter. Although BIRD has received detailed information from prisoners and their families that the 60 prisoners in question were subjected to violations that included torture, cruel and degrading treatment, religious discrimination, incommunicado detention, and other serious human rights violations in an attack whose violence was condemned by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, your report merely labels it a “disturbance.” Conversely, the US State Department has acknowledged the UN’s statement as well as reports that “prison officials violently assaulted inmates.”
- Failure to mention denial of medical care and preventable deaths of political prisoners
By stating that national human rights oversight bodies are conducting investigations into human rights complaints and monitoring detainee access to medical facilities, but failing to mention the mistreatment of political prisoners and three detainee deaths in 2021, the report is misleading the public. Indeed, the report makes no direct mention of political prisoners, whose mistreatment and deprivation of liberty remain a primary human rights concern, as noted by the US State Department in their 2021 report. In 2021, three prisoners tragically died in custody in Bahrain, two of whom were political prisoners; Abbas Mallallah and Husain Barakat. According to first-hand testimonies from witnesses, received by BIRD, all three individuals died after the authorities failed to provide them with adequate or timely medical care in the period leading up to their deaths, and a former political prisoner and torture survivor, Ali Qamber, also tragically died from cancer he developed during his detention and following deliberate denial of medical care from Bahraini authorities during his time in prison.
- Failure to condemn violations against death row inmates
The report raises no concerns over human rights violations against death row inmates in Bahrain and fails to call for these individuals’ sentences to be quashed and for them to be released. Rather, it notes that 26 people remained on death row in 2021 without stating that they are at imminent risk of execution, and without naming cases of torture victims on death row such as that of Mohammed Ramadhan and Husain Moosa, despite your promise to raise their cases “publicly and loudly” and to “seek to have [the death sentences] set aside."
- Misleading information about religious freedom
The report provides a one-sided representation of religious freedom in Bahrain and fails to include any information about religious discrimination against the Shi'a Muslim majority in the country. This includes the ongoing imprisonment of Shia’a clerics, deprivation of citizenship of the country’s most senior Shi'a religious figures, restrictions on religious freedoms during Ashura, and severe discriminatory measures against Shia’a political prisoners.
In light of the above, we ask that you issue a correction to the report so that it provides an accurate representation of human rights concerns in Bahrain, and to ensure that future reporting does not provide an incorrect and misleading picture of the human rights situation in Bahrain.
Further, given the lack of transparency around the OSJA assessments and clear human rights abuses associated with the UK-funded bodies funded in Bahrain, the UK should freeze all assistance until independent international experts verify these bodies are no longer enabling abuses.
Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, Director
Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy
Yasmine Ahmed, UK Director
Human Rights Watch
Maya Foa, Joint Executive Director