7 November 2016 – Prince Charles will tomorrow be in Bahrain for a four-day trip which has stirred controversy. The Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD), in a letter to the Prince of Wales last month, say that “given the recent intensification of human rights violations by the Government of Bahrain”, a royal visit now to promote commerce and arms trade will “enable those continuing violations.”
The campaign group urged the Prince of Wales to cancel his trip, arguing: “By cancelling your visit you will be upholding and representing the freedoms enjoyed in the United Kingdom: freedom of speech, religion, movement, assembly and freedom of the press.”
The Prince of Wales’ visit to Bahrain was announced in September, and came under immediate criticism. As part of his agenda, Prince Charles will be visiting the new Royal Navy base currently being constructed at a cost of £30m by the Bahrain Defence Force, in an arrangement which the Ministry of Defence described to BIRD as a “gift” from Bahrain to the UK. The UK is expected to be contribute around £7.5m towards the base, the cost of which has ballooned in size from the originally announced £15m total figure.
Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, Director of Advocacy, BIRD: “Bahrain will see Prince Charles’ visit as a green light for their repression and use him to whitewash their terrible record, at a time when the repression is intensifying and the government is eliminating its critics. Prince Charles should take this opportunity to meet the jailed defender Nabeel Rajab, who is fighting for democracy and human rights, not dining with the architects of injustice.”
The visit comes a week after the latest court appearance of Nabeel Rajab, the human rights defender currently facing up to 15 years on multiple charges of “insulting a statutory body”, “insulting a neighboring country”, and “disseminating false rumors in time of war”. These are in relation to remarks he tweeted and retweeted on Twitter in 2015 about torture in Bahrain’s Jau prison and the humanitarian crisis caused by the Saudi-led war in Yemen. He was also charged in September with “undermining the prestige of the state” after the New York Times published his opinion piece, Letter from a Bahraini Jail. If convicted on this charge, Rajab faces an additional year in prison.
On 31 October, the court ordered Rajab’s case to be reopened for new investigations into his twitter account. The United States has described his trial unjust and called for his release.
Prince Charles’s visit will be followed up by a visit by Prime Minister Theresa May in December. Last month, King Hamad of Bahrain visited Downing Street and, in a meeting marked by protests, invited her to the Gulf Cooperation Council Leaders Summit in December. It will be the first time that the Prime Minister travels to the oil rich and human rights poor Gulf region.
Further Information: A Summer of Repression
Bahrain has come under mounting criticism recently. Last month, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights used his opening statement at the 33rd session of the council to warn Bahrain: “The past decade has demonstrated repeatedly and with punishing clarity exactly how disastrous the outcomes can be when a Government attempts to smash the voices of its people, instead of serving them.”
As well as the prosecution of Nabeel Rajab, over 20 human rights activists were banned from travel in June and August according to BIRD’s data, preventing them from attending two sessions of the UN Human Rights Council and engaging in international events. One human rights defender, Zainab Al-Khawaja, was forced into exile in June after receiving threats of re-arrest and indefinite detention. This came within weeks of her release from prison on charges related to her expression, which was secured through pressure from the United States.
Al Wefaq, the largest political society in the country, was dissolved over the summer and their assets frozen. The society is appealing the decision. In May, a court increased the prison sentence of Al Wefaq’s Secretary General from four years to nine on charges related to his peaceful political activities.
Alongside these events, on 20 June the Ministry of Interior revoked the nationality of Sheikh Isa Qassim, the spiritual leader of Bahrain’s Shia majority. Sheikh Qassim is today the highest ranking Shia cleric in the country, and had been an elected member of the country’s parliament in 1973 (the brief democratic experiment was abolished within two years by the late Emir Isa, King Hamad’s father and predecessor). He is now being prosecuted for “money laundering”. The charge relates to his role in gathering and distributing Khums, a type of religious donation commonly practiced by Shia Muslims.
Since June 2016, the Government of Bahrain has carried out a sustained campaign against the country’s civil and political society and the country’s Shia community. According to BIRD’s documentation, over 60 clerics have been subject to questioning and prosecution for their sermons and participation in protests, with three sentenced in the past month. Since 20 June, police have subjected Sheikh Qassim’s hometown of Duraz to a physical blockade and nightly internet blackouts, collectively punishing the village’s 20,000 residents.