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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?