THE BLOG

Four Years of UK Rights Assistance to Bahrain for What Result? Only More Torture

06/05/2015 12:50 BST | Updated 05/05/2016 10:59 BST

"Many guys were badly beaten. I was beaten on the head and lost consciousness and woke up by being beaten more. By the time you reached the courtyard you couldn't feel your body." I was interviewing a former inmate of Bahrain's Jau Prison, the largest long-stay male prison in the country. With a capacity of 1208 inmates, it is over-capacity with over 2600 inmates living in horrible conditions. Without enough beds, prisoners sleep on the corridor floors. The toilets and showers are in filthy condition.

When on 10 March rumours spread among the inmates that a police officer had assaulted a female visitor, they finally snapped and rioted. The police met them with disproportionate force. It took only a few hours to subdue the riot, but the police then spent a month humiliating and torturing inmates as punishment. The conclusion: that systematic torture and ill-treatment is practiced on an unprecedented scale in the prison.

I know what it is like to live through this abuse. I was in Jau in 2011 - police arrested me after I spoke to Al Jazeera English about the violence facing protesters. Officers routinely beat me in Jau: slapping and punching me in the face, kicking me in the chest while I was handcuffed, and slamming my head against the wall while other officials looked on and laughed. I was crammed in a 4x3m cell with five other men, sleeping in dirty beds. The smell of human waste saturated the air.

My inspirational leader Nabeel Rajab wrote about the March riot last month about what had happened. On Twitter, he called on the government to hold torturers accountable for what they had done. He talked to ex-inmates, recently released, and gathered their testimony. Then he was arrested for insulting a statutory body. The message is clear: do not speak the truth in Bahrain.

The United Kingdom has been a lame and unobservant ally to Bahrain in all this. The Foreign Office spent £1.5million on a reform assistance package to Bahrain in 2014, which included human rights training to the police. For what good? British tax payer money has been spent on cosmetic 'reform' which has provided victims of torture in Bahrain absolutely nothing. Police still regularly torture prisoners.

Election fever can't be to blame for the UK's inattentiveness, because the Foreign Office has had the chance to raise the issue of torture and failed reform since the campaigns started. Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond made a weekend trip to Bahrain and met with the Crown Prince there, a visit he did not make public but which Bahrain did. Did he raise concerns over a terrible human rights record just two weeks before the General Election? Probably not.

What is happening in Jau Prison reflects what is happening outside. The prison is over-capacity because any political activity, human rights work or expression of opinion can be treated as a criminal offence. Does this speak to a country which has moved on significantly since 2011, when thousands protested on the streets even as police fired upon them?

This is important to the UK. Britain is building a new naval base there - construction is expected to start later this year. Britain has significant economic ties to Bahrain. And the current government has sold £76million in arms to Bahrain. The next government of the UK will inherit this new naval base and this failing 'human rights' policy which has only wasted the British tax payer's money.

When I met Mr Hammond earlier this week, he told me, "If we disengage and start shouting, we will have zero influence." Yet who can say that quiet diplomacy has worked?

If the next Government only cares to sell arms and build trade links with Bahrain, let them at least have the courage to admit that they don't really care for human rights. And if the next Government has the humanity to care, let them show it by actually engaging - publicly - for the respect of human rights there. Let them call for Nabeel's release, let them criticise the crimes against humanity committed in Jau, let them be a positive influence upon the countries they call allies.