The five year-sentencing of Bahrain’s leading human rights activist Nabeel Rajab on 21 February 2018 has attracted widespread international attention.
Regrettably, the UK’s response has been the weakest among the international community. UK Minister for the Middle East Alistair Burt merely expressed concerns for Rajab’s sentence and endorsed Rajab’s right to appeal.
The Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) revealed the latest tactic employed by the Bahraini Government to undermine the international responses.
Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, Director of Advocacy at BIRD said: “Bahrain seeks to whitewash the harsh sentencing of Nabeel Rajab by investing in propaganda to conceal the dire reality facing its citizens: the exposure of horrific human rights abuses through social media will not be tolerated. The Government’s latest tactic will do little to serve its PR campaign in the Bahraini community, as Nabeel’s bravery will be remembered for generations. The UK Government, however, once again diminishes its credibility by failing to call for Nabeel’s release.”
United States (US)
On 22 February, Heather Nauert, the spokesperson for the US Department of State, stated: “I want to make it clear that we are disappointed by both of those decisions. The United States Government wants to reaffirm our previous calls for his release. We’ve repeatedly expressed our concern about those cases. We continue to strongly urge the Government of Bahrain to abide by its international obligations and commitments to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of expression.”
European Union (EU)
On 21 February, an EU spokesperson stated: “The case of Mr Rajab has become a symbol for human rights defenders and respect of freedom of speech, in Bahrain and beyond. This new sentence, as well as the open cases against Mr Rajab, run counter to the Government of Bahrain’s own commitments as the country prepares itself for new parliamentary elections. The European Union once again reiterates its call to grant Mr Rajab’s release.”
- The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s (FCO’s) Disastrous Policy
Despite the extensive opposition provoked by Rajab’s 5-year sentence, the UK Government again avoided condemning Bahrain by redirecting attention to Rajab’s right to appeal.
On 21 February, Alistair Burt stated: “I am concerned about the 5-year sentence handed down by the Higher Criminal Court of Bahrain today to Mr Nabeel Rajab, in addition to a two year sentence given in July 2017. I understand that Mr Rajab now has the right of appeal against this latest sentence. The UK urges Bahrain to protect freedom of expression for all of its citizens, in line with its international obligations.”
- Funding Programmes to Bahrain
The FCO has allocated another £1.52 million to technical assistance programmes this year (2017/18), which “aim to support progress on building effective and accountable institutions, strengthening the rule of law, and justice reform”, the FCO Minister stated.
By continuing to fund these programmes, the UK is complicit to the abuses committed by the Bahraini Government.
- UK Parliament Response
On 20 February, 25 British Parliamentarians wrote to Boris Johnson, urging him to publicly call for the release of Nabeel Rajab and to review the FCO’s policy towards Bahrain.
On 20 February, the day before the sentence was issued, Andy Slaughter MP asked Alistair Burt about Rajab’s forthcoming judgment during the FCO Topical Questions session. Burt reiterated that the FCO continues “to monitor the trials and processes very carefully.”
The NYT argued that “the sentencing of the advocate, Nabeel Rajab, is the latest step in a long crackdown on dissent in Bahrain”, and highlighted the remaining charges Rajab is facing in retaliation to the publication of his op-ed on his experiences and a front-page piece published ahead of Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia last May.
Bahrain’s Response to the Media
On 21 February, the Embassy of Bahrain in the UK commented on the sentencing, claiming that Rajab’s cases “do not relate to political views or political expression.”
Bahrain is well-known for using propaganda to promote and improve its international image, particularly in the Western media.
The day after Mr. Rajab’s verdict, the Telegraph published 3 articles, all of which encourage UK tourism to Bahrain. These articles are officially sponsored by the Bahraini Government, in a blatant attempt to divert attention from Nabeel Rajab’s sentencing and the human rights abuses perpetrated by the Bahraini authorities. Below is the list of the 3 articles:
- “Why Bahrain is the pearl of Arabia for history, culture and the warmest of welcomes”
- “Discover the history of pearl diving on a trip to the Bahrain Grand Prix”
- “Why the Bahrain Grand Prix is the most exciting fixture on the F1 calendar”
This is not the Bahraini Government’s first attempt to disguise its human rights abuses, as it has previously used sports to ‘launder’ a more wholesome image for the country. In the 18 months that followed the pro-democracy uprising, the Bahraini Government “allocated at least US$ 32.5 million for the services of eighteen different London and Washington DC based companies”.