Cameron has done high-profile photo-ops with Bahraini royalty, but has stayed silent on human rights. Photo: Getty
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Arms sales can never be apolitical acts: the UK should not sell to Bahrain

There are few regimes as authoritarian as the one in Bahrain, and even fewer that enjoy such a level of support from the UK.

The prominent and brave human rights campaigner Maryam Al-Khawaja is the most recent victim of the Bahraini regime, having been detained while visiting her father Abdulhadi al-Khawaja who has been imprisoned since 2011 for his activism.

This is only the latest example of the intensifying crackdown being waged by the Bahraini regime against pro-democracy protesters and critics. Over the last few years there have also been attacks on journalists, artists and opposition parties.

Earlier this month, it was announced that there were 600 detainees on hunger strike in opposition to government torture. A statement released by the prisoners has accused the authorities of a long list of abuses; including beatings, insults, torture, solitary confinement, and forcing them to stand for long hours.

Official reconciliation talks in Bahrain fell apart in the new year after three years of political deadlock. The breakdown of dialogue was symptomatic of wider problems with the undemocratic and abusive ways in which the government operates.

Shortly after the breakdown, the King strengthened his authority with the introduction of a new law that imposes prison sentences of up to seven years on anyone who publicly insults him.

Research from Human Rights Watch shows that despite the upbeat assessments from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office there has been little in the way of progress on human rights or democracy. The regime has also, rightfully, been condemned by Freedom House, Amnesty International and the Economist Democracy Index, which listed it among the 20 most authoritarian governments in the world.

Unfortunately, it is against this backdrop that the UK has chosen to strengthen its relationship with the regime.

As well as announcing new trading agreements, the Department of Business Innovation and Skills has listed Bahrain as a "priority market" for arms sales and the government has invested a lot of time, money and political capital into its very public support for the Bahraini authorities as it attempts to secure a deal on Eurofighter jets.

Only four months ago, the Bahraini royals descended on the UK as part of a propaganda offensive that saw them rubbing shoulders with the Queen at the Royal Windsor Horse Show and meeting with senior politicians at a specially arranged conference in the heart of Westminster.

This was just one public display of support in what is a mutually fawning relationship. It followed hot on the heels of a state visit from Prince Charles and "GREAT British Week"; a colourful and flamboyant arms fair and garish tribute to all things British that took place in Manama in January and attracted visits from Philip Hammond MP and Prince Andrew.

The 2011 uprisings should have seen a re-evaluation of the way that the UK does business in the region, but it licensed £18m worth of military equipment to Bahrain in 2013 alone. This included licences for machine guns, sniper rifles, weapon sights, ammunition and anti riot shields, all of which can be used for internal repression.

What is implicit in the arms sales is a political support for the regime and a message to democracy activists and those fighting repression that their aspirations for human rights and civil liberties are of less importance than arms trade profits.

This point was emphasised by the Foreign Affairs Committee's 2013 report into relations with Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, which concluded that: "Both the government and the opposition in Bahrain view UK defence sales as a signal of British support for the government."

The issue goes way beyond Bahrain. Unfortunately the UK sells weapons to a number of regimes that are every bit as repressive and authoritarian as the Bahraini one, with its biggest buyer being Saudi Arabia.

Arms sales can never be apolitical acts. On one hand, they bolster the buyers by giving them a British endorsement as a fig-leaf of respectability, but they also buy the UK government's political silence and compliance. David Cameron has done a number of high-profile photo-ops with Bahraini royalty, but has stayed silent on human rights.

Unless there is an international embargo on arms sales to Bahrain, pro-democracy activists such as Al-Khawaja will continue to campaign in an environment that is characterised by violence, intimidation and repression. As the crackdown continues to escalate and spread, we can be under no doubt that decisions being made in support of arms sales are having serious consequences for the victims of state repression.

Andrew Smith is a spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade and tweets at @wwwcaatorguk

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.