Government and opposition representatives debate in UK Parliament

Representatives of the Government and the Opposition spoke today at a panel discussion in the UK Parliament, hosted by the All Parliamentary Group for Human Rights. Vice-Chair of the Shura Council, Jamal Fakhro, spoke on behalf of the Government, whilst Ali Alaswad, a resigned MP from Al Wefaq represented the opposition. Sir Nigel Rodley, former Commissioner of the BICI and Dr. Kristian Coates-Ulrichsen of LSE also joined the panel, that was Chaired by UK MP Ann Clwyd.

Implementation of the BICI and calls for dialogue were hot topics during the discussion, with a number of other resigned MP’s, the Bahraini Ambassador to the UK and others from the embassy also in attendance.

The discussion was opened by Ann Clwyd MP who began by expressing her concern at renewed claims of violence against protesters by the security forces. She urged for an immediate dialogue and called for unity between all people of Bahrain. She argued that Bahrain finds itself at crossroads and it is time to reach out with new ideas to bring things forward.

Sadly there was little new coming from the Government side, with Jamal Fakhro saying “we cannot hold a dialogue whilst our Police are being killed.” The first half of his speech was full of friendly rhetoric, even accepting that some aspects of the BICI had not yet been implemented. However, he argued that it was wrong to blame the Government for this and BICI implementation should be the responsibility of all in society. He said it was wrong for Al Wefaq to refuse the request to be on the implementation committee, although the party has said in the past that they were never offered a seat as a party, only individuals.

Fakhro then went on to justify a lack of implementation by claiming that Bahrain needs to learn the culture of human rights and this process can take a long time. At which point Ann Clwyd proclaimed “Not fast enough!”

The second half of his speech was less conciliatory and concentrated on blaming Al Wefaq for violence in the streets and for a lack of dialogue. He said, “Al Wefaq cannot handle their people,” arguing that molotov cocktails and such like are a result of Al Wefaq not being able to stop them. There seemed to be no admittance that Al Wefaq are in fact probably responsible for the lack of violence so far, having worked tirelessly to discourage protesters from violence.

On dialogue he said that “Al Wefaq has a long list of conditions” before it can happen, despite Al Wefaq regularly calling for an unconditional dialogue. He said that any dialogue should “start with a blank sheet of paper”, which was later rejected by Ali Alaswad who said the country cannot ignore the BICI recommendations, the UPR recommendations as well as the Manama Document and the principles of the Crown Prince.

He also laid out his own conditions for dialogue saying that “we cannot hold a dialogue whilst our Police are being killed.”

Before Jamal Fakhro spoke, Sir Nigel Rodley discussed the BICI and gave some background and context. He also gave some of his initial thoughts on implementation, although he admitted he was not confident he had received all the information, relying mostly on civil society and NGO’s.

Accountability was an important topic for Sir Nigel who admitted some recommendations were more important than others, including holding to account high level officials. He said “it was not so clear that the prosecution dimension (of the BICI) had gone smoothly.” He said that during his time as the Special Rapporteur on torture, Bahrain was a real problem country for torture. Sir Nigel said he felt that torture had returned after 14th February protests, possibly as a result of the impunity and lack of protection for the earlier crimes.

He highlighted media as another area without progress and mentioned specifically that the recent revoking of citizenships of 31 opposition figures was “inconsistent with human rights” and “will not lead to reconciliation or dialogue”.

He ended by affirming that the BICI recommendations should not be implemented as part of a trade off and that they deserve to be implemented in their own right and that he was sorry that implementation has yet to go far enough.

Following on from Jamal Fakhro, resigned MP Ali Alaswad spoke. He cited the wide range of statements from the international community about BICI implementation, arguing that the Government claiming that the BICI is a work in progress “should not hide the failure in implementation.”

On accountability he asked, “how can a Prime Minister who has been in power for 42 years hold himself to account?”

Alaswad outlined that the main opposition parties are not calling for a downfall of the regime, only a constitutional monarchy. He said, “we value the role our monarchy can play but at the same time we believe their power should have democratic limitations”.

The resigned MP also wanted to reaffirm Al Wefaq’s committment to the dialogue process saying “only this can take our country forward”. He said that the recent signing of the non-violence declaration was an important confidence building measure on behalf of the opposition and called on the Government to make similar measures such as reversing the banning on protests to allow people to protest “without the fear of arrests, violence and repression.”

He said, ” We in the opposition stand ready to put the past 20 months behind us and to seriously address taking the country forward into the future. It starts with dialogue and we call on the international community to support this process.”

The final main speaker was Dr. Kristian Coates-Ulrichsen, an associate fellow with Chatham House and research fellow at LSE. He cited the recent POMED report that highlights that only 3 recommendations of the 26 of the BICI had been implemented fully, although he said it was encouraging that only 6 remained untouched.

He did claim that it was wrong fo the Government to blame the repression on a small number of low-level officers and again made clear that accountability should take place.

Immediately after, Jamal Fakhro seemed to take exception to the words of Dr. Kristian, accusing him of “doing nothing to help Bahrain” and he said such foreigners should not be involved in the country! Later in the discussion Dr. Saeed Shehabi responded to this by asking Jamal Fakhro if he agrees to this principle does he think John Yates, John Timoney and others should leave Bahrain?! Unsurprisingly, there was no reply on this.

An interesting debate broke out between House of Lords peer, Lord Ahmed, and Jamal Fakhro. Lord Ahmed asked, how can you justify the revoking of citizenships of two former MP’s? Fakhro replied that neither Jawad or Jalal Fairouz (both present in the room) were no longer MP’s therefore they should be treated at normal citizens. Lord Ahmed then asked how can you revoke the citizenship of anyone, even if they are not MP’s. Fakhro replied “The King was clear, they are a threat to national security”.

When questioned about what efforts the Government had made towards dialogue Fakhro evaded the question by blaming Al Wefaq. He said “Al Wefaq went to the streets” instead of dialogue, showing no examples of efforts made by the Government in this regard.

Resigned MP’s Khalil Almarzooq, Jawad Fairouz and Jalal Fairouz also spoke during the discussion. Almarzooq asked “is the Prime Minister a super citizen?,” when talking about accountability. He compared him to the case of Jalal Fairouz, who has never stood before any court but had his citizenship revoked. Almarzooq affirmed that all citizens need to be treated equally, whether the Prime Minister, MP or anyone else.

Other audience members pitched in with questions and statements, although the meeting ended on the discussion of how to get to a dialogue. BJDM asked what measures the Government were taking to build confidence, after a number of similar measures by the opposition. We received no reply to this.

However, at the very end Ambassador Alice Samaan spoke and said the Government is ready for dialogue. All opposition members immediately asked if this was a real offer and if so they will happily accept. Ali Alaswad said “we will start tomorrow if you are serious.”

Realising that she may have over stepped her authority she quickly backtracked before Jamal Fakhro took over and spared the Ambassador’s blushes.

In all, the opposition members seemed to be offering a genuine call for dialogue and expressed willingness to build confidence beforehand. The Government used the rhetoric of dialogue but were unable to say that a dialogue will happen anytime soon and stopped short from doing so. However, this meeting, attended by MP’s and other members of the British establishment, will no doubt put pressure on the Bahraini Government to start a process of dialogue with an opposition who stand ready and waiting.

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