THE BLOG

The UK Has Picked the Wrong Friends in Bahrain

03/10/2014 16:11 BST | Updated 03/12/2014 10:59 GMT

A month ago I wrote on these pages that the British had detained my friend and human rights colleague Nabeel Rajab, his wife, his 16-year-old son, and his 12-year-old daughter for five hours at Heathrow. It was clear that the British authorities were snuggling up in bed with the Bahrain regime, and I predicted that the British actions would embolden their authoritarian chums in the Gulf, and perhaps even lead to Nabeel's arrest on his return home.

I would have been happy to be proven wrong. Unfortunately, my worst fears have come to pass. When he arrived at the airport in Manama, he was duly detained by the Orwellian "Bahrain Cyber Crimes Department" - apparently on the heinous charge of sending messages to his 240,000 Twitter followers that were unflattering to the powers that be.

Nabeel, you may recall, 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 protests' against the Bahrain regime. He was also charged with the vicious offence of "insulting a national institution" - although his conviction for a tweet he sent about the prime minister was later overturned. He was beaten by the police, and was held almost naked in solitary isolation - isolation, that is, except for the dead animal that was placed in his cell. The UN determined that the detention was arbitrary and illegal.

Lord Eric Avebury, one of Nabeel's stalwart supporters, complained to the British authorities about the mistreatment at Heathrow. He recently received a reply from Immigration and Security Minister James Brokenshire, who opined that a review found that the long detention was "professional and appropriate". He concluded as follows: "Border Force does not expect that Mr Rajab will be inconvenienced again on any future visits to the UK."

Naturally, the UK will not behave that way again - their own actions have contributed to Nabeel being held beyond any meaningful rule of law in his home country. Nabeel will be lucky if he gets out of this arbitrary imprisonment this time; he is hardly likely to make it to the British border to suffer further indignities.

On 28 September, Lord Avebury wrote again to Mr. Brokenshire. He noted that, in light of the responses to his official questions, "it is clear to me that instructions have indeed been given to immigration officers to give greater scrutiny or priority to those Bahraini nationals who are political or human rights activists... What evidence is there in the statistics on immigration that leads you to the conclusion that Bahrainis 'constitute a greater risk to immigration control'...?"

It is bad enough that the British do not recognise their Muslim allies: whether it be harassing Nabeel or making baseless allegations against Moazzam Begg, they constantly offend those who should be their closest Muslim friends. However, when the British government sups with the Devil, they ignore the age-old advice to use a long spoon. Whether it is Tony Blair clasping Colonel Gaddafi to his bosom in a Libyan tent, or the current government supplying British weapons for use against the Bahraini people, we constantly pick the wrong friends.

Perhaps it is too much to expect that the British should adopt an "Ethical Foreign Policy", as once they promised, but please let us not choose the most immoral alternative. The government must intervene at once to insist that Nabeel's exercise of his right to free speech while he was our guest in Britain cannot form the basis for his detention upon his return home.