Thursday, October 07, 2010
An interesting debate on Bahrain at the House of Lords
Prepared: 23:36 on 6th October 2010
Asked By Baroness Falkner of Margravine To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the political situation in Bahrain.
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Howell of Guildford): The British Government attach great importance to our relations with the Gulf states and are committed to strengthening our already strong relationship with the kingdom of Bahrain.
We are concerned by increasing tension in the run-up to parliamentary elections there on 23 October. We hope that all sectors of Bahraini society will engage fully in the political process and work to reduce current tensions. We encourage the Government of Bahrain to allow all groups competing in the election level playing fields and to maintain their programme of democratic reforms.
Baroness Falkner of Margravine: My Lords, the noble Lord must be aware of the deteriorating political situation as he has just alluded to it. Is he aware that political activists have been imprisoned, have been denied access to lawyers, that there are allegations of torture and that opposition parties and NGOs which were legal until recently have been banned in the past few days? How do we expect a level playing field in that regard? There is alleged to have been a terrorist plot against the Government of Bahrain which the US, of course, refutes. Will the noble Lord tell the House whether Her Majesty’s Government agree that there has been a terrorist plot and how they will consider recalibrating their position with Bahrain should the elections turn out to be a complete sham?
Lord Howell of Guildford: I thank my noble friend for her concern in this matter, which is very proper as we take all allegations of torture extremely seriously. We are aware that allegations have been made in a number of cases. Of course, we are dealing with a long-term situation of great pressure under which Bahraini society has to operate, with pressures from all sides, particularly influence from Iran. Nevertheless, these are extremely worrying allegations. Our ambassador has raised them and has demanded and sought transparency and due process in all cases. They have also been raised at the highest ministerial level and we will continue to pursue our questions about the allegations of torture. I have to say that the Bahraini authorities insist that they have nothing to hide and that there is no evidence of torture. Nevertheless, the allegations remain and we will continue to raise them with the Bahraini authorities.
Baroness Uddin: My Lords, I declare my interest as the vice-chair of the Bahraini APPG. While I accept the noble Baroness’s premise as regards some of the difficulties that Bahrain faces, does the noble Lord accept that there has been tremendous improvement in governance structures in Bahrain and that British government support is absolutely critical at this point given that it is one of the two Gulf countries seeking a political mandate from its people?
Lord Howell of Guildford: Yes, I accept that. It is, in a way, ironic that of the two Gulf states that are making most progress on democratic and parliamentary reform—Kuwait and Bahrain—Bahrain should come in for the criticism. Nevertheless, my noble friend is absolutely right to be concerned about the allegations. Torture is unacceptable to us wherever it occurs in the world; and where it occurs among our friends, the very fact that we have friendship and a good relationship enables us to take the matter up in a very frank and effective way. But the noble Baroness is quite right in this regard.
Lord Avebury: My Lords, we are very grateful to the Foreign Secretary for making a telephone call to the Crown Prince about the detention and torture of a British citizen who is among the dozens who have been detained for political reasons. Will the Foreign Secretary make another telephone call to ask the Bahraini ruling family if they will grant permission to the families of the detainees to visit them without having 10 security men standing in the background, and allow their lawyers to visit without being observed? Finally, will the Foreign Secretary ask the ruling family to invite the UN rapporteurs on torture and arbitrary detention to pay a visit to Bahrain to investigate the circumstances?
Lord Howell of Guildford: My noble friend is talking about a particular case and it is quite difficult to talk about the details of an individual case where permission has not been given by the individual for it to be discussed. However, if, as I suspect, he is referring to the case of Mr Al-Hisabi, who has been detained and about whom a lot of allegations have been made, this matter was indeed raised at very high levels—whether by telephone or face to face. Consular access has been offered to the individual because he has dual nationality. In the future, there could be further consular access. I am advised that there will be no problem at all about further access and about the issue that my noble friend raised on the position of the families and their support.
As to visits from outside bodies to examine the situation, I agree that this is possibly a worthwhile idea. I am advised that the Bahraini authorities would not be averse to the right kind of inspection or visit from outside authorities to monitor the truth of the allegations—some of which may have a basis and some of which may be false—and to present the Bahraini authorities’ case, which is that there is no real evidence of torture.
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I am sure that we all agree that wherever torture occurs it should be condemned in the unequivocal way that the Minister has done, and we welcome that. But Bahrain is a relatively liberal Gulf state: its elections have been inclusive of women; there have been women at senior levels in the Bahraini Government and it is inclusive of different religious groupings. Given that history and the excellent relationship to which the Minister referred, does he believe that now really is the moment to approach the Bahrainis on inspections of their prisons and places of detention, because, like the Minister, I believe that that sort of approach might be well received? [italics added}
Lord Howell of Guildford: I agree with the noble Baroness. This may now be an idea that we are certainly prepared to consider and, as I said earlier, my impression is that the Bahraini authorities themselves would be favourable towards some proposition of this kind. It is certainly something that we will consider putting to them.