Bahrain stepped up its suppression of critics yesterday by dissolving the kingdom's main opposition party, al-Wefaq, and confiscating its funds. An announcement by the government news agency said the party, which was founded in 2001, had "provided an environment" that embraced terrorism, extremism and violence and called for foreign interference in the national affairs.
Brian Dooley of Human Rights First described the decision is "a dangerous mistake", leaving no real outlet for peaceful grievances. "The kingdom's government has told its people that from now on not only are you not allowed rights, you're not allowed to complain about it," he told Reuters.
The closure of al-Wefaq raises further questions about Britain's cosy relationship with the repressive Gulf monarchy. The British government has identified Bahrain as a "priority market" for business and in the last year has spent £2 million funding so-called reform programmes in the kingdom (list here). They include one project to "develop" Bahrain's prison system.
In London last week, a reception was held at the House of Commons to "celebrate" 200 years of British-Bahraini relations. The event was sponsored by Jack Lopresti, a British MP who has previously had almost £8,000-worth of trips to Bahrain paid for by the Bahraini government.
However, the forcible closure of al-Wefaq may be a step too far, even for the British government. On Sunday, Britain's new foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, issued a statement which, by the standards of the Foreign Office, was unusually critical and did not – for once – pay tribute to the regime's imaginary reform efforts. Johnson said:
"I am deeply concerned by the decision of the Bahraini High Administrative Court to dissolve Al Wefaq. I urge the Government of Bahrain to guarantee and protect political freedoms for all its citizens. I encourage all sides to engage in constructive and inclusive dialogue to promote social cohesion and inclusivity, including political representation, for all Bahrainis. I understand there is a right of appeal, and we will continue to follow the case closely."
Earlier this month, in response to a freedom of information request, the Foreign Office published a letter from the head of its Arabian Peninsula and Iran Department defending its support for Bahraini "reforms":
We believe that UK support to Bahrain’s reform programme is the most constructive way to achieve long-lasting and sustainable reform in Bahrain. While it will take time to see the full results, UK support is having a direct, positive impact on areas of concern.
In particular we welcome the progress made by Bahrain in the areas of youth justice, the establishment and increasing effectiveness of the Ombudsman’s office, the Prisoner and Detainees’ Rights Commission and the reformed National Institute of Human Rights. We will continue to work with the Government of Bahrain to ensure momentum and progress on its reforms, for the benefit of all Bahrainis.
Embarrassingly for the Foreign Office, though, the "increasing effectiveness" of Bahrain's ombudsman (funded by British taxpayers) does not seem to be happening. The Observer newspaper reported at the weekend that the ombudsman has been failing to investigate serious allegations of torture, including a complaint about the treatment of Mohammed Ramadan, who was sentenced to death for taking part in a bombing that killed a policeman. Ramadan, who had participated in demonstrations against the government, claims he was tortured into confessing to the crime.
According to the Observer, the Bahraini ombudsman initially claimed there had been "no allegations of mistreatment or torture" in relation to Ramadan's case, and this false information was then relayed to the British parliament by Foreign Office minister Tobias Ellwood.
In fact, a lengthy complaint had been sent to the ombudsman in 2014 by the rights organisation, Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain. The ombudsman has now admitted receiving it but says it was "overlooked" because the complaint arrived by email rather than on an official complaint form.
In a further development on Sunday, the Bahrain government news agency announced that a journalist is to be prosecuted for working for foreign media "without having obtained any prior official permission" from the authorities. The journalist was not named in the agency's report but in a post on Twitter Nazeeha Saeed identified herself as the person concerned.
In an email to al-bab she declined to talk about her questioning but pointed out that she had been suffering harassment since 2011.
According to the Bahrain News Agency, Ms Saeed is to be prosecuted under Section 88 of the much-criticised 2002 Press Law. Bahrain's constitution (Article 23) says: "Everyone has the right to express his opinion and publish it by word of mouth, in writing or otherwise under the rules and conditions laid down by law." However, the law's insistence that Bahraini journalists need government permission in order to work for foreign news organisations is unreasonable and probably unconstitutional. The only conceivable reason for such a rule is to restrict freedom of expression.