THE BLOG

Why Did the British Authorities Treat This Bahraini Rights Activist So Badly?

05/09/2014 09:50 BST | Updated 04/11/2014 10:59 GMT

It is undoubtedly true that there are some barbaric extremists who pervert the meaning of Islam - many of whom may now be associated with ISIS in Iraq and Syria. All the more reason, then, for us to identify our friends in the Islamic world, and treat them well.

Why, then, did the British authorities treat my friend Nebeel Rajab, his wife, his 16-year-old son, and his 12-year-old daughter so badly? And when can they expect an abject apology?

Nebeel is the head of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) and the deputy secretary general of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH). In 2012 he was imprisoned for three years (later reduced to two) for taking part in 'illegal' peaceful protests against the Bahrain regime. He was also charged with the heinous offence of "insulting a national institution" in comments about the interior ministry that he posted on Twitter. His conviction for a tweet he sent about the prime minister was later overturned.

Perhaps Nebeel was lucky. He 'only' suffered abuses such as being beaten by the police, and being held almost naked in solitary isolation - isolation, that is, except for the dead animal that was placed in his cell. Another friend from Bahrain - BCHR's founder Abdulhadi al-Khawaja - is serving a life sentence based on evidence that is widely accepted as having been secured under torture. In both cases, the UN has determined that the detention was arbitrary and illegal.

I first met Nebeel when he volunteered to come to Yemen to help persuade the families of Guantánamo detainees to allow us to offer them free legal representation. Nebeel then worked closely with us to get justice for all the Bahraini detainees, and many of the Saudis - whose own government would not allow us to visit their families in Saudi Arabia. Throughout my association with Nebeel I have known him to be a decent, dedicated, liberal person - just the kind of ally that Britain needs if our politicians are serious about making this country safe.

So why, then, did the British authorities hold Nebeel and his family at Heathrow for five hours? Adam is 16; Malak is just 12 years old. Nebeel and Soumaya had brought them to England on holiday: was this to be the children's first impression of a country that boasts that it is the home of democracy and the rule of law? After spending the first hours of their holiday in a Heathrow detention centre both Adam and Malak were forced to have their finger prints taken, and to pose for "mug shots" before finally being allowed to leave. Before their holiday had even started they were asking to be taken back to Bahrain!

Unfortunately, it is inevitable that the British authorities have reported back on Nebeel's detention to their buddies in an undemocratic Bahraini regime that has no respect for the law. (I am sorry if this is the kind of comment that "insults a national Bahraini institution" - but fortunately in Britain we have the right to free speech, especially when we describe a despotic regime with accuracy.) Nebeel spoke recently at the House of Lords, and appears to have caused consternation among British diplomats because of his willingness to highlight Britain's shameless hypocrisy in its attitude to Bahrain. Nebeel has already heard that he may be detained upon his return home; if so, this may well be based, in part, on the comments of British officials.

Not only are our actions in this case a cause for serious concern, but our broader policy of standing idly by while the Bahraini authorities use of illegal means to prevent opposition politicians speaking truth to power continues to increase is equally shocking. A few days ago Maryam al-Kawaja, my old friend Abdulhadi's daughter, herself a committed human rights activist, was arrested and detained by Bahraini authorities after returning to the country of her birth to try and visit her father in prison. On Tuesday of this week, a politically motivated death sentence was confirmed against 28-year-old Maher Abbas, who has been accused of a crime he patently couldn't have committed, since he was on shift at his job in a hotel at the time. As in Abdulhadi's case, Maher's conviction appears to have been based entirely on "evidence" obtained after days of horrific torture and abuse. In light of cases like this, the idea that the UK, with our serious and principled opposition to the death penalty, should nonetheless be supporting the Bahraini authorities in their campaign of harassment against the legitimate opposition is all the more worrying.

I am, frankly, disgusted that our country should behave in this way. To be sure, we may sue them on Nebeel's or Malak and Adam's behalf, should that be necessary. But the decent and honest thing would be for the British government to issue an unconditional apology - before Nebeel returns to Bahrain in a few weeks' time.