Labour MP Ann Clwyd speech in UK Parliament

During a long discussion in Parliament on the Middle-East, Labour MP Ann Clwyd produced this fantastic speech on Bahrain, human rights and the BICI report. We will try to upload more comments on Bahrain and a full summary of the events will be presented tomorrow. You can visit here to read text of the discussions in full.

Text of this speech:

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): I welcome this debate on the middle east, an area in which many countries continue to undergo political upheavals following decades of authoritarian rule, for the benefit of those in power and at the expense of the ordinary citizen.

Much attention has, of course, been directed towards Egypt, where the struggle for democracy, accountability and transparency appears, unfortunately, to be far from over. Like many others, I hope that the military will be persuaded to give way soon to a fairly elected civilian Government. However, I shall focus on two other states in region, which have been mentioned often this afternoon, and where the legitimacy of the Government in power has been challenged. Those Governments now have to decide whether they will undertake reform of their own volition, or precipitate greater instability, and create mistrust and suffering among their own citizens. Those two countries are, of course, Bahrain and Syria.

As has been widely reported, there was widespread protest and serious unrest in Bahrain between February and March of this year. On 15 March, after political negotiations between the Government of Bahrain and the opposition had broken down, the Government declared a three-month state of national safety, which was lifted on 1 June. Gulf Co-operation Council forces were also deployed in the country from about that time. There was a serious and heavy-handed Government crackdown on those believed to have been directing the protests, as well as on leading opposition figures.

These recent events must be put into context. Although there have been attempts by the Government of Bahrain to reform and to address human rights concerns in the recent past, particularly since the ascension to power of the current monarch, reports by well-known international human rights organisations have highlighted the use of torture by the security apparatus, impunity, unfair trials, arbitrary arrests and restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly as ongoing and serious problems not just this year, but for many years.

Amnesty International’s background report on the situation in Bahrain in 2010 stated:

“During 2010, sporadic protests took place in predominantly Shi’a villages against alleged government discrimination in relation to housing and employment opportunities. In some cases, protesters blocked highways with burning tyres and threw home-made petrol bombs at the police and security forces. Hundreds of people were arrested”—

I reiterate that this is a report on the situation in 2010, not 2011—

“particularly in August and September, in connection with protests and riots, including many leading opposition figures, most from the Shi’a majority community. Many were allegedly arrested without warrants and held incommunicado for up to two weeks after arrest.”

On the situation in 2009, Amnesty International said:

“The authorities failed adequately to investigate allegations of torture and other ill-treatment of detainees. Government critics were briefly detained and several websites were closed down. One person was executed. The government indicated it would decriminalize certain publishing offences, reduce legal discrimination against women and introduce other reforms.”

Political analysts have highlighted long-standing demands in the country for political, constitutional and socio-economic reform. In particular, calls have been made for an elected Prime Minister, an accountable Government and a fully empowered and democratically elected legislature. Previous attempts by the Government of Bahrain to address these demands have not been viewed as very successful by opposition leaders, and resulted in a lack of trust in the Government’s willingness to implement genuine and meaningful political and socio-economic reform. The protests earlier this year must be seen against this backdrop of long-standing violations and grievances.

The Bahrain independent commission of inquiry—BICI—was set up by the Government of Bahrain to investigate and report on the allegations and events of 2011, and to make such recommendations as it deemed necessary. I, of course, welcome the King’s initiative to set up this commission and to allow for the full publication of the report’s 500 pages. It presents a detailed and balanced account of events surrounding the Bahraini protest movement, the context in which it occurred and the response by Government agents. Its findings set out in considerable detail the manifestly repressive nature of the Government’s crackdown on protesters and opposition leaders.

The report states that the security forces

“in many situations violated the principles of necessity and proportionality, which are the generally applicable legal principles in matters relating to the use of force by law enforcement officials. This is evident in both the choice of weapons that were used by these forces during confrontations with civilians and the manner in which these weapons were used.”

Kwasi Kwarteng: What does the right hon. Lady say to the accusation that I have heard from some people in the region that Iran was very much involved in fomenting the unrest in Bahrain?

Ann Clwyd: If the hon. Gentleman is a little patient, I shall come to that point in a moment.

The report also states:

“A large number of individuals were prosecuted before the National Safety Courts”.

It went on to say:

“Numerous violations of due process rights were recorded…it appears that the Military Attorney General chose to rely on those statutory provisions that were the least favourable to the arrested persons and to the defendants appearing before the National Safety Courts.”

It continued:

“The manner in which the security and judicial agencies of the GoB”—

Government of Bahrain—

“interpreted the National Safety Decree also opened the door for the perpetration of grave violations of human rights, including the arbitrary deprivation of life, torture and arbitrary detention.”

The report also details that many of the detainees were subjected to torture and other forms of physical and psychological abuse while in custody, and it lists the methods as follows:

“blindfolding; handcuffing; enforced standing for prolonged periods; beating; punching; hitting the detainee with rubber hoses (including on the soles of the detainee‘s feet), cables, whips, metal, wooden planks or other objects; electrocution; sleep-deprivation; exposure to extreme temperatures; verbal abuse; threats of rape…and insulting the detainee‘s religious sect”.

Those subject to this were predominantly Shi’a.

Many of those held by the authorities claim that they were forced to sign confessions or admit to committing crimes. It is especially pertinent that the report notes on more than one occasion that the actions of the authorities were “systematic”. I emphasise that word, as it shows that these violations were not the fault of a few bad apples or rogue elements; the security personnel in Bahrain were carrying out actions that were expected of them and that were implicitly, if not explicitly, condoned by superiors and other branches of the Government.

With at least 35 deaths, thousands arrested, 4,500 employees dismissed for their support of the protests, more than 500 students expelled and 30 religious sites demolished, it is simply not credible that such a vast crackdown could have taken place at the initiative of the lower ranks of the Bahraini Government alone. The report categorically states:

“In many cases, the security services of the GoB resorted to the use of unnecessary and excessive force, terror-inspiring behaviour and unnecessary damage to property. The fact that a systematic pattern of behaviour existed indicates that this is how these security forces were trained and were expected to behave.”

It goes on to say that there is

“a culture of impunity, whereby security officials have few incentives to avoid mistreatment of prisoners or to take action to prevent mistreatment by other officials.”

Some months ago, before the summer recess, I, on behalf of the all-party group on human rights, and Lord Avebury, the vice-chair, went to see the ambassador of Bahrain at the embassy in London. He was Mr al-Khalifa, a member of the royal family, and Eric Avebury, in particular, had detailed knowledge of the complaints made by some of the medical personnel—he knew some of the doctors personally. He was very specific when we put those accusations to the then ambassador, who said that he knew nothing about it but that he would come back to us with a detailed explanation of all the allegations. We heard not one word from the ambassador and surprisingly—or perhaps not—two weeks later, he was gone from the embassy, never to return. He was replaced by another ambassador, who did not give us any more information.

I remain concerned about the trials of doctors and nurses in military courts and the harsh sentences handed down. Although the King subsequently intervened and most of the health workers are now under house arrest awaiting trial in civil courts, the report’s findings on the brutal manner in which people were arrested and detained prompts the question of whether any subsequent trials can be fair and whether there is any justification for those people being held at all.

Jeremy Corbyn: I compliment my right hon. Friend on her meeting with the ambassador and the efforts that she and Lord Avebury have made. Does she agree with me, however, that the current process in Bahrain is pretty awful but not particularly new and that it goes back to the suspension of the constitution a couple of decades ago and the continual denial of rights of free expression ever since? This is a merely a descent into that and much of the surveillance of the opposition is done using equipment supplied by Britain.

Ann Clwyd: I thank my hon. Friend for making those points, which I attempted to make to the Foreign Secretary earlier. It is inappropriate: if we are still selling arms to the Bahrainis or training Bahraini military personnel in this country, that should not be done in the light of human rights abuses going back not just to the beginning of this year but to earlier years, too.

If the Government of Bahrain are to retain their legitimacy domestically and their credibility internationally, given what the BICI has established as the systematic nature of the serious human rights violations by Government officials, they must ensure that accountability for those violations goes right to the top. If I have one criticism of the report, it is that I feel it could have gone further, with a more precise allocation of responsibility for specific violations, stating who ordered what and when. The Government of Bahrain will, we hope, do that now.

We should make no mistake: Bahrain is at a crucial crossroads and can redeem itself in the eyes of its citizens and the international community by ensuring that, first, the rule of law and then wider democratic reforms prevail; by putting responsible officials, including those at the top of the chain of command, such as Government Ministers and senior military leaders, on trial; by engaging meaningfully with the Opposition; and by implementing the recommendations of the BICI report in good faith. Alternatively, it can bury its head in the sand and set the stage for further and more pronounced instability in the future.

Perpetuating the myth that Iran was responsible for the unrest is, in my view, not only unhelpful but dangerous. I am no apologist for the Iranian regime—I am only too well aware of the terrible human rights violations perpetuated on a daily basis on its own people and of the profoundly destabilising effects of its foreign policy—but it is important to note the report’s findings in this regard. It said:

“The evidence presented to the Commission…does not establish a discernible link between specific incidents that occurred in Bahrain during February/March 2011 and the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

It is critical that leaders in Bahrain take responsibility for their own failings and acknowledge legitimate grievances rather than dismissing them as nothing more than “foreign agitation”.

The Bahraini King has said that he is determined to ensure that the report’s insights will act as a “catalyst for positive change”, and has since issued a decree to form a national commission with powers as advised in the report. However, the King still seems reluctant to face up to the enormity of the task ahead, given his carefully worded statement on receiving the report last Wednesday in which he referred to

“the unprecedented challenges faced by our authorities as they confronted relentless provocation, from hostile sources both inside and outside the country,”

and to

“instances of excessive force and of the mistreatment of persons placed under arrest.”

I trust that the UK Government will, as I think the Foreign Secretary has indicated that we will, as a friend of the Bahraini Government, encourage and persuade them to do what is right in the longer term, however difficult that is in the short term, for the people of Bahrain, the region and the wider international community.

The following words from the BICI report sum up what I want to say on Bahrain:

“During the beginning of the events in Bahrain, as during the past decades, the demand was for reforms, not for regime change. This was the same in the early stages of the demonstrations and protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Yemen. But as experience shows, when demands for reforms are rebuffed, the demands become for regime change. In the end, the society becomes both polarised and radicalised. This situation leaves little room for a centre that could bring together people from all ethnic and sectarian groups and from all social and economic strata to work for reforms based on well established principles and processes of democracy, good governance and respect for internationally protected human rights.”

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