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.