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.


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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After a year of division, a new centre is emerging in Labour

Clive Lewis, Lisa Nandy and Jonathan Reynolds show how factionalism is being transcended. 

On 26 September, Clive Lewis sat onstage at Labour’s conference in Liverpool and puffed out his cheeks in exasperation. He had just been informed that a line in his speech as shadow defence secretary committing the party to Trident renewal had been removed by Jeremy Corbyn’s office. Such was his annoyance that he was said to have later punched a wall in anger ("I punched no walls," he told me when we recently met). 

For Lewis, however, the feud proved to be a blessing. Hitherto hostile MPs hailed his pragmatism and deference to party unity (he is a long-standing opponent of Trident renewal). The former soldier also affirmed Labour’s support for Nato and for collective self-defence. “The values that underpin Nato are social-democratic values: liberty, democracy, freedom of expression,” Lewis, an early Corbyn ally, told me. “Let’s not forget, it was Clement Attlee and the New Deal Democrats who initiated and set up Nato. It’s about being in it to win it. It’s about winning the arguments inside Nato and making sure that it’s a force for good. Some people would say that’s impossible. I say you’ve got to be in it to be able to make those changes.”

In October, Lewis was replaced as shadow defence secretary by Nia Griffith and became shadow business secretary. Many regarded the appointment as a punishment. “Do I think there was an ulterior motive? I’ll never know,” Lewis said. “I’m confident that the reason I was moved – what I was told – is that they wanted me to be able to take on a big portfolio.”

Whatever the truth, Griffith has since said that Labour’s next general election manifesto will include a commitment to Trident renewal and will support multilateral, rather than unilateral, disarmament.

Many MPs had long feared that the divide between them and their leader would prove unbridgeable. Some contemplated standing on bespoke manifestos. Yet with little drama, Corbyn has retreated from a conflict that he could not win. Labour’s conference, at which the largely pro-Trident trade unions hold 50 per cent of the vote on policy and which the leader has vowed to respect, would never have endorsed unilateralism.

“Jeremy Corbyn deserves credit for that,” Lewis said. “Everyone understands that his position hasn’t changed. He still believes in unilateral disarmament . . . But he’s also a democrat, and he’s a pragmatist, despite what people say.”

In policy terms, at least, Labour will contest the next general election as a less divided party than many anticipated. As Corbyn’s team has long emphasised, there is unity around issues such as opposition to spending cuts and support for rail renationalisation. A new centre for Labour, embodied by Lewis, is emerging.

“When I became an MP,” the 45-year-old told me (he was elected in Norwich South in 2015), “to be anti-austerity, to say that cuts don’t work and they’re bad economics, meant you weren’t in touch with reality, and that you had no interest in winning elections. Within the space of 18 months, there’s now a growing consensus that cuts aren’t the way forward and that we need an industrial strategy.”

Theresa May’s support for new grammar schools and “hard Brexit” has given Labour MPs other issues to unite around. After Corbyn’s second landslide leadership victory, many of his opponents have reached the final stage of grief: acceptance. Others, as Lewis noted, are imbued with “an eager enthusiasm to make this work”. Contrary to some predictions, more than half of the 63 frontbenchers who resigned last summer have returned.

An emblematic figure is Jonathan Reynolds. The Liz Kendall supporter, who resigned as shadow transport minister in January 2016, has rejoined the front bench as shadow City minister. Earlier this year, Reynolds backed the introduction of a universal basic income, an idea that is now being explored by John McDonnell’s team (and that Barack Obama has called for “debate” on). In July, Reynolds and Lewis wrote a joint piece in support of proportional representation (PR), warning that without it “a more equal, democratic and sustainable society is less likely”.

Another advocate of PR is Lisa Nandy, the former shadow energy secretary and a friend of Lewis (on 26 October, along with Reynolds, they called for Labour to stand aside in the Richmond by-election to aid the Liberal Democrats). In the view of some, the defining divide in Labour is no longer between left and right but between open and closed. On one side are pluralists such as Lewis, Reynolds and Nandy, while on the other are tribalists such as Ian Lavery (pro-Corbyn) and John Spellar (anti-Corbyn).

The division stretches to the top, with McDonnell in favour and Corbyn opposed. “It’s a work in progress,” Lewis said of his efforts to convert the Labour leader. “There’s a growing movement of MPs who now either support PR or understand the growing necessity for it. They may not be quite there themselves, but they’re moving in that direction.”

At times since Corbyn became leader, the parliamentary party’s divisions have appeared to many to be insurmountable, even as the party in the country has grown and been inspired by Corbyn. Yet a new consensus is being forged in the PLP: anti-austerity, pro-Trident, pro-Nato and, increasingly, committed to political and constitutional reform. If there is any consolation for a becalmed Labour Party, it is that its European counterparts are faring little better. In Spain, France and Germany, an already divided left is further fragmenting.

But Labour is likely to both fight and survive the next general election as a united force. If Lewis can retain his seat in Norwich (he has a potentially vulnerable majority of 7,654), he could one day act as the bridge between the party’s “soft” and “hard” left. After a year of factional skirmishes, the common ground in which Labour’s future will be shaped is emerging.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage