Next month will see the Queen heading to Windsor for the Royal Windsor Horse Show, one of the biggest events in the UK’s equestrian calendar. It will be a chance for her to enjoy watching her horses, and a big opportunity for the Royal Family to rub shoulders with well-wishers and project its image around the world.
Among the guests expected to attend is Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. The King is a veteran of these events, and an autocratic dictator with a long history of overseeing human rights abuses and enforcing repression. His government also supports one of the races.
There is no doubt that it will also be a fun day out for the Bahrini delegation. However, for those living under its rule in Bahrain it will be yet another reminder that the UK establishment will always put its political and military relationship with a tyranny above their human rights.
Despite empty talk from UK ministers about the Bahraini regime’s supposed ‘progress’ on human rights, the abuses being inflicted on the people of Bahrain have been getting worse. Last year the Bahraini authorities used the death penalty for the first time since 2010.
A recent Amnesty International report, ‘No one can protect you’: Bahrain’s year of crushing dissent, found that, in the 12-month period preceding June 2017, at least 169 government critics or their relatives were arrested, tortured, threatened or banned from travel by the authorities. The report also accused Bahraini forces of torture, clamping down on free assembly and dismantling political opposition.
Another Amnesty report from last year documented the terrible abuse reported by Bahraini student Ali Mohamed Hakeem al-Arab. Al-Arab alleges that he was tortured throughout 26 days of interrogation, including by having his toenails pulled out, being subjected to electric shocks and beatings, and being forced to sign a “confession.”
The aftermath of last year’s Windsor Horse Show saw severe punishment for the families of Bahrainis in the UK who planned to protest against the event. Bahraini security forces detained the families of three UK-based activists, not because of anything they had done, but simply as an effort to intimidate their relatives.
As one of those affected has said: “Before even reaching the Horse Show grounds, our family members were arrested and interrogated by security forces at the Muharraq Police Station. From there, they were forced to call us and warn us about what the consequences would be if we continued with our protests in the UK.”
Some who have protested against the King have had their citizenship revoked, leaving them stateless. In total, almost 600 people have been stripped of their status. Despite this catalogue of abuses, he will be given the reddest of red carpet treatments while UK royals confer legitimacy and prestige to his rule.
The horse show invitation will have been made with the support of Whitehall and Downing Street. For decades, successive UK governments of all political colours have also been all too happy to ignore the appalling human rights abuses taking place in order to solidify their political and military links with the regime.
Bahrain is listed as one of the governments ‘priority markets’ for arms sales, with the UK having licensed over £80million worth of arms to the Bahraini military since the ‘Arab Spring’ uprising in 2011. In fact, only three months after the uprising began, and while Bahrain was still in a ‘state of emergency’, the Crown Prince of the Kingdom was on the steps of Downing Street posing for photographs with David Cameron.
Earlier this year, and after years of cooperation, the UK opened a naval base in Bahrain. The base, which was largely paid for by Bahrain, is an ugly symbol of a mutually fawning relationship that has seen arms sales and political support exchanged for geopolitical advantage.
As the King enjoys the splendour and decadence of a day at the races, he will be met with fierce opposition.
Bahraini activists in exile in the UK will be working with human rights campaigners to make sure that the visit doesn’t go unnoticed. They are calling on supporters of human rights, equality, freedom of expression and peace, to come together and stand with them in solidarity.
It’s long past time that Buckingham Palace stopped providing PR opportunities for dictatorships and human rights abusers. Join us in calling for it to end now.
Andrew Smith is a spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.