Mehdi Hasan on our friend and ally: the Kingdom of Bahrain

The latest Human Rights Watch report makes for depressing reading.

Yesterday I tweeted a link to this piece in the Atlantic Monthly on how the repressive Bahraini regime has signed up a top public-relations agency to rebrand its image in the west:

Last year, in the early weeks of Bahrain's violent crackdown on the largely Shia opposition protests, the minister of foreign affairs inked a contract with Qorvis to provide public-relations services for $40,000 per month, plus expenses. One of the largest PR and lobbying firms in Washington, Qorvis employs a number of former top Capitol Hill staffers and also works for Bahrain's close ally, Saudi Arabia. The firm's work for Bahrain came under scrutiny last year when it defended the government's raid last year on a Doctors Without Borders office in Bahrain. Also in 2011, a Qorvis official wrote pro-regime columns in The Huffington Post without revealing his affiliation with Qorvis.

This morning, I was at a breakfast briefing with Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division, who was discussing the latest HRW report, "No Justice in Bahrain".

From the report's "Summary":

Based on scores of interviews with defendants, former detainees, defense lawyers, and observers of the trials, as well as a comprehensive review of available court records, medical documents, and other relevant material, this report finds that the National Safety Courts repeatedly failed to respect and protect basic due process rights.

And:

Human Rights Watch interviewed eight defendants following their release in February 2011, all of whom said that they had been subjected to torture and ill-treatment, variously reporting beatings, sleep deprivation, forced prolonged standing, and extended detention in solitary confinement. Human Rights Watch had access to photographs of injuries and medical reports of government doctors that corroborated some of these accounts. Not only did the Public Prosecution Office reject without basis the defendants' allegations of abuse, it premised its case largely on evidence that "came out of the mouths of the defendants themselves," indicating that the case was built essentially on confessions.

In his briefing, Stork pointed out how HRW and other human-rights group have had their access to Bahrain "restricted since last April". He also revealed how the UN's special rapporteur on torture, Juan Mendez, who had been planning to visit Bahrain later this month, has been asked by the regime to postpone his trip. What do the Bahrainis - who hired John Yates (!), former assistant commissioner of the Met, to help "reform" their security forces - have to hide?

Perhaps it is the fact that, as Stork bluntly put it:

there is a patina of a justice system operating but, really, it's a joke. There is no way if you're a protester that you're not going to get a conviction in court. . . The prosecutors are part of the problem."

As I noted in the Guardian last year:

The Orwellian regime in Manama continues to round up people for the most minor of "offences". Last month, for example, the 20-year-old university student Ayat al-Qarmezi was arrested, assaulted and sentenced to a year in prison - by a military court - for reading out a poem criticising the king at a rally.

The Bahraini government says things have changed; in a letter to the Times on 22 February, the country's ambassador to the UK, Alice Samaan, wrote:

Last year our country experienced a period of unrest. Sine the demonstrations our response has been to introduce an independent investigation and a programme of reform.

But, as Stork pointed out this morning, the truth is that

just one Bahraini member of the security forces - a lieutenant accused of an extra-judicial killing of a protester - has been charged so far. The rest have been low-level, foreign members of the security forces from Pakistan and elsewhere.

For Stork, "there is no transparency here". For example, the "independent" complaints unit set up to deal with protesters' grievances is based inside - wait for it - the nation's interior ministry. Hmm. And torture and abuses inside police stations may have stopped but, Stork pointed out, what is happening now is that

there are reports of demonstrators being picked up [by the security forces] and beaten before getting to the police station.

So what's our government up to? Er, arming the Bahraini tyrants, that's what. As I wrote in my column in the Times on 14 February:

Between July and September 2011, the [Conservative-Lib Dem] coalition authorised the sale of £2.2 million of arms to the regime. It was reprehensible and irresponsible, an official British betrayal not just of the Bahraini people, but of the Arab Spring itself.

The Bahraini ambassador's 22 February letter in the Times was written in response to my column. She accused me of being "completely inaccurate" and failing

to recognise that Bahrain is one of the most progressive countries in the region.

I put this claim to HRW's Stork. He laughed and said:

The Bahrainis are concerned with their image but there is a huge disconnect between their self-image and what's happening on the ground. Progressive? Perhaps you could call it 'progressive authoritarianism'.

So, I ask again (as I have asked before), why on earth does the UK continue to support, defend and arm a progressive-authoritarian regime, which continues to beat and abuse its protesters, fails to conduct fair or transparent trials and investigations or allow in the UN's special rapporteur on torture, and employs expensive foreign PR firms to help whitewash its crimes? Does our government have no shame?

 

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.