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While We Wring Our Hands Over Syria, There's a Deafening Silence Over Torture in Bahrain

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Believe it or not but a funny thing happened at the 16th Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit in Tehran last month. When the new Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, denounced the "oppressive" Syrian government, it didn't go down so well with the pro-Assad Iranians. So, local journalists decided deliberately to mistranslate "Syria", in Farsi, as "Bahrain", prompting the latter to feign outrage.

The problem for the Bahrainis is that their government is indeed "oppressive" and therefore lends itself to such easy substitution. Over the past 18 months, Bahraini security forces, aided by troops from Saudi Arabia, have engaged in a brutal crackdown against the island nation's own Syria-style uprising. Bahrain is home to the Arab Spring's forgotten revolution. Since
February 2011, there have been near-daily protests against the regime, a repressive Sunni monarchy ruling over a Shia-majority country. These have been met with tear gas, live ammunition, mass arrests and torture. While the fighting in Syria is debated in the corridors of the United Nations building and reported on the front pages of the world's newspapers, the unrest in Bahrain is quietly ignored by our leaders and relegated by journalists to the box marked "news in brief".

"[The violence] has got worse," Maryam al-Khawaja, acting president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, tells me during a rare visit to London. "The Bahraini regime has made some superficial changes but the situation on the ground hasn't changed...Torture has moved from official torture centres to unofficial torture centres."

The death toll

Apologists for the Bahraini regime claim it is offensive to compare the moderate, pro-western king, Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, to the Assads or Gaddafis of this world. They point out that the death toll in Syria is far, far higher than in Bahrain. True, says Khawaja, "[but] one of the things you have to do is look at things per capita. Bahrain's population is 600,000 and you are looking at 100 people dead. If Bahrain had the same population as, say, Egypt, that's [equivalent to] more than 11,000 people dead in just a year and a half."

Meanwhile, thousands of Bahrainis languish behind bars on trumped-up, politically motivated charges, including around 90 children under the age of 18. Torture, in the words of the government's own official inquiry, is "systemic" - detainees have been beaten on their backs and the soles of their feet; deprived of sleep; subjected to sexual assaults, including the insertion of hosepipes and rifle barrels into the anus; forced to urinate on themselves and, in one reported case, eat their own faeces.

Maryam al-Khawaja's father, Abdulhadi, co-founder of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, was sentenced to life imprisonment by a military court in 2011 on spurious "terrorism" charges and has since been designated by Amnesty International as a "prisoner of conscience". Her two brothers-in-law were also detained and tortured - "psychologically, physically and sexually", she says - while her sister Zainab was arrested in August for allegedly tearing up a picture of the king.

"When you want to judge a human-rights situation in any country, look at where the human-rights defenders are," says Khawaja, who is remarkably calm and articulate for a 25-year-old whose family are behind bars and who herself is regularly subjected to death threats. "In Bahrain, they are in prison."

So why the silence from the west? You guessed it: unlike Syria, or, for that matter, Libya, the Gulf Kingdom of Bahrain (under British rule from the 1860s to 1960s) is a key ally. It hosts the US Navy's Fifth Fleet and is a strategic bastion against growing Iranian influence in the region. President Obama's call for freedom across the Middle East, Khawaja adds, is "the essence of hypocrisy".

She says the UK government, in particular, has much to answer for and "has been worse than the US government" in pandering to the regime. King Hamad was invited to the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations at Windsor Castle in May; his elder son, the Crown Prince, has been hosted by David Cameron at No 10; his younger son, Nasser bin Hamad, accused of sanctioning the torture of dissident Bahraini athletes, attended the opening ceremony of the Olympics in London in July.

Odious regime

Our support for this odious regime goes beyond mere hospitality. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills authorised the sale of £2.2m of arms to the regime between July and September 2011. And the Home Office raised not a peep when the former Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner John Yates was appointed by the Bahrainis as an "adviser" on security - in which capacity he defended the use of live ammunition against protesters during the Bahrain Grand Prix in April.

So what is to be done? Those of us who decry western inaction on Bahrain are not calling for air strikes or no-fly zones; we don't want to arm rebel groups or send in the tanks. But we do insist our governments speak out, loudly and forcefully, against the regime's ongoing crimes. Why isn't the US State Department or our own Foreign Office calling for the release of all political prisoners? Why aren't they considering a travel ban on senior members of the regime?

"The inaction of the international community has really emboldened the Bahraini government into believing that they are immune," says Khawaja, who is clear on what has to happen in order to bring an end to the state-sponsored violence. First, western governments must put pressure on the regime to allow access to the UN's special rapporteur on torture, and to foreign journalists and NGOs such as Human Rights Watch; second, the threat of economic and diplomatic sanctions must be made. She is right: the US and UK governments' "softly softly approach" hasn't worked and is, frankly, a moral disgrace. I can't get Khawaja's words out of my head: "Your government has the power to stop this mess."

This piece can also be read on the New Statesman