Amnesty warns over Gulf States human rights record – PM May calls them ‘oldest and most dependable friends!’

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AMNESTY International has warned that the human rights records of Persian Gulf Arab states must not be ‘swept under the carpet’ during the upcoming meeting of (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council in Bahrain.

In a report released on Monday, Amnesty noted that human rights are notably absent from the agenda of the annual meeting of the six (P)GCC states of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

‘Hundreds have been harassed, unlawfully prosecuted, stripped of their nationality, arbitrarily detained or in some cases imprisoned or even sentenced to death after unfair trials, as part of a concerted effort to intimidate people into silence,’ said Amnesty International’s Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa Randa Habib.

‘The use of such ruthless tactics to trample all over the rights of people in the (P)GCC has to end now,’ she added. The human rights group also called for the release of Bahraini rights activist Nabeel Rajab and Sheikh Ali Salman, who headed the al-Wefaq opposition group, Bahrain’s largest parliamentary bloc before dissolution by the Manama regime.

‘In the (P)GCC today exercising your fundamental rights or speaking your mind freely can very easily land you in jail. (P)GCC states need to stop branding independent human rights activists and peaceful critics as criminals.

‘Instead of locking such people away for long periods under the false pretence of defending national security, they should welcome scrutiny of their human rights records,’ added Habib.

UK Prime Minister Theresa May arrived in Bahrain on Tuesday to expand ties with Arab countries of the Persian Gulf region, ignoring international calls to scrap the trip due to widespread violations of human rights by some of those governments.

May was welcomed by Bahrain’s Prime Minister Prince Khalifah bin Salman Al Khalifah upon her arrival at Bahrain International Airport in Manama on Monday. Before departing London for a two-day visit to the tiny Persian Gulf country, May said she was headed there to lay the foundations for ‘a new chapter’ in ties with members of the Persian Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which is formed by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman.

The expansion of ties is critical now because the UK plans to leave the European Union (EU), May noted. ‘There is so much we can do together – whether it is helping one another to prevent terrorist attacks, (Persian) Gulf investment regenerating cities across the UK or British businesses helping (Persian) Gulf countries to achieve their long-term vision of reform,’ she said.

The British premier attended a dinner with GCC leaders on Tuesday evening, before giving a speech at the organisation’s plenary session on Wednesday. She signed a space technology deal with the UAE, as well as a new multiple five-year visa entry plan for British firms working in Saudi Arabia.

Overshadowing the visit from days ago, however, has been a deep concern about May’s reluctance to address the Al Khalifah regime’s heavy-handed crackdown on the years-long popular uprising in the country for basic democratic rights. May took a cautious line on the issue, saying that human rights abuses should not affect London’s trade policy.

In fact seconded British police officers and ex-army officers are directing the Bahrain regime’s anti- democratic drive! ‘No doubt there will be some people in the UK who say we shouldn’t seek stronger trade and security ties with these countries because of their record on human rights,’ she said.

‘But we don’t uphold our values and human rights by turning our back on this issue,’ she continued, adding that the UK was going to continue its ties with the Persian Gulf monarchies to ‘keep our people safe and create new opportunities for business’.

Aside from aiding Bahrain in its ongoing crackdown, Britain has drawn great criticism for striking major arms deals with Saudi Arabia, despite the regime’s months-long bloody military onslaught against neighbouring Yemen.

Hopes for an end to Britain’s unconditional support for Saudis were further crushed when UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said on Sunday that Saudi Arabia was far from crossing the ‘threshold’ in bombing Yemen. ‘So far we do not believe there has been a clear risk of breach of humanitarian law in respect of the use of those weapons,’ said Johnson.

Riyadh is the biggest customer for UK-made weapons. Prime Minister Theresa May has meanwhile called for deeper military cooperation with members of the Persian Gulf Cooperation Council.

Addressing the GCC’s annual summit in the Bahraini capital Manama on Wednesday, May said Britain planned to invest more than $3.7 billion in the region over the next decade. ‘As part of the renewed relationship that I want to forge with you, the United Kingdom will make a more permanent and more enduring commitment to the long-term security of the Persian Gulf,’ she told leaders of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman.

‘Gulf security is our security,’ she said. ‘In challenging times you turn to your oldest and most dependable friends.’ Just before departing London for the two-day visit, May said she wanted to lay the foundations for ‘a new chapter’ in ties with Persian Gulf countries as the UK was leaving the European Union.

The prime minister also spoke about discussions to boost trade with the Persian Gulf countries, which are important markets for UK arms sales. ‘I want these talks to pave the way for an ambitious trade arrangement’ after Brexit, she said.

Rights groups had called on May to cancel her trip to Bahrain, criticising her for putting military ties and commerce ahead of human rights. Scores of people have been killed and hundreds of others injured or arrested in the Bahraini crackdown on the anti-regime activists, who have been holding protests on an almost daily basis since February 2011. The protesters demand the Al Khalifah dynasty relinquish power.

In her televised address, May also touched upon issues such as the Iran nuclear agreement, the ongoing conflicts in Yemen and Syria as well as the military campaign against the Daesh terrorist group. The prime minister said the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran was ‘vitally important for regional security’.

Her comments were in contrast with those of US President-elect Donald Trump, who said during his campaign that he would ‘rip up’ the deal or renegotiate its terms. May, however, said the UK and its allies must work together to counter what she called ‘Iran’s aggressive regional actions’.

The UK will open a massive permanent military base in Bahrain and deploy warships in the Persian Gulf. The base, which is the first such facility being opened by Britain in the Persian Gulf region in four decades, will be launched next month.

Britain will station around 600 military forces at the Royal Navy Facility and will deploy its warships to patrol the surrounding waters and guard oil and gas shipments in the waters.

• The UK prime minister has apparently declined to raise the issue of the death penalty for juveniles and political protesters in Saudi Arabia, despite emphasising in a speech on Wednesday that the UK is the Gulf’s ‘partner’ in reform and the ‘embedding’ of international norms.

Theresa May met with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman during her three-day visit to the Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Bahrain. According to reports, Downing Street could not confirm whether ‘specific cases of imprisoned or exiled dissidents’ had been raised during the meeting. 

The comment appears to mark a change in stance from previous statements; as recently as September, the Foreign Office confirmed that Boris Johnson had raised with his Saudi counterparts the cases of three juveniles facing execution in the Kingdom.

Ali al-Nimr, Dawood al Marhoon and Abdullah al Zaher were arrested in relation to protests at the ages of 17, 17 and 15, and tortured into false ‘confessions’. The Saudi authorities have executed several juveniles this year, and international human rights organisation Reprieve has written to Theresa May, asking her to use this week’s Gulf visit to press for the release of the three.

Reprieve has warned the Prime Minister of evidence that more juveniles have recently been sentenced to death. May’s predecessor, David Cameron, said last year that he would attempt to raise the cases with Saudi Arabia.

Reprieve has also asked the Prime Minister to ask Kuwait to drop its plans to lower to 16 the age at which people can be executed; and to urge Bahrain to release prisoners who were tortured and sentenced to death for attendance at protests, such as father of three Mohammed Ramadan.

With May due to meet with the King of Bahrain on Wednesday, Mohammed Ramadan’s wife, Zainab Ebrahim, appealed to her to secure his release. Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have received substantial support and training from the UK for their prison and police services, and on Wednesday, May said that the UK is ‘determined to continue to be your partner of choice as you embed international norms and see through the reforms which are so essential for all of your people’.

However, Reprieve has raised concerns over both countries’ continued use of the death penalty and torture to extract false ‘confessions’. During 2016, Freedom of Information requests by Reprieve have revealed that:

• A Foreign Office project has seen hundreds of Bahraini prison guards in Bahrain’s death row jail;

• British Police have trained their Saudi counterparts in investigation techniques that could lead to the arrest, torture and sentencing to death of protesters;

• These projects have been undertaken without the safeguards that are supposed to be put in place under the government’s flagship guidance on the death penalty and torture overseas – known as the Overseas Security and Justice Assistance (OSJA) guidance.

Commenting, Maya Foa, a director at Reprieve, said: ‘Theresa May’s bid to be the Gulf’s “partner of choice” sounds more like a sales pitch than a much-needed call for reform.

‘Despite years of substantial UK support apparently intended to improve the human rights situation in the Gulf, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia continue to torture and sentence to death juveniles and political dissidents – an appalling breach of the “international norms” that Mrs May says she wants to promote.

‘If the Prime Minister is going to commit the UK to greater cooperation with the Gulf, she must also call for an immediate end to these abuses – and the release of prisoners like Ali al-Nimr.’