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Britain's Still Making Excuses for Bahrain

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Imagine the following scenario. A young man is arrested by security forces during a street protest. A few days later Ali Saqer dies in custody, his body covered in "blunt force contusions." Two security officers are convicted to 10 years in prison for their role in his death, but an appeals court later cuts their sentence to just two years, because the defendants' actions sought to "preserve the life of detainees, among them the victim." In other words, as they helped beat Ali Saqer to death, the officers in question were actually only trying to keep him alive.

Confused? You'd be right to be. And this confusion is reflected all too clearly in the UK's policy towards Bahrain, where the case of Ali Saqer played out. For while Bahrain's serious rights abuses have provoked condemnation from many governments around the world, the UK's response has been both feeble and ineffective.

It's been two and a half years since King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa vowed to reform Bahrain's justice system in the wake of criticism of his government's brutal crackdown on largely peaceful protests. In July 2011, faced with growing international condemnation, he established the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), comprising five international jurists, tasked with investigating allegations of human rights abuses in the country. BICI's report concluded that Bahraini courts had convicted hundreds of people of political charges related to the exercise of the rights to free expression and peaceful assembly, and recommended that these convictions be reviewed, and the sentences commuted or the charges dropped. The BICI report also found that Bahrain's security forces had killed at least 18 demonstrators and detainees and that investigations should be conducted, with those responsible brought to justice. While King Hamad promised that the BICI recommendations would be implemented with urgency, the Bahraini authorities have largely failed to do so.

So it's bizarre that in its recent Foreign Office report, the UK government said Bahrain's reform programme suggested the country's "overall trajectory on human rights will be positive." There is simply no basis for such an upbeat assessment.

New research from Human Rights Watch shows that UK claims of progress on judicial and security sector reform in Bahrain since 2011 are unfounded. Despite the UK's "constructive engagement," quiet diplomacy and capacity-building support, little appears to have changed in the administration -- or rather maladministration -- of Bahraini justice.

Leaders of the 2011 protests remain in prison, some sentenced for life terms, and judges continue to convict new defendants of "crimes" based solely on the expression of dissenting political views or for peaceful protest.

In the case of 13 of Bahrain's most prominent opposition leaders and activists, Bahrain's highest court upheld many of the convictions and lengthy sentences that had been first pronounced, unjustly and inappropriately, by a military court. Absurdly -- and contrary to any international standard -- the Bahraini courts have also sought to justify the reaffirmation of these earlier sentences on the grounds that terrorism need not involve violence but can be the result of "moral pressure."

While the Bahraini authorities have been vigorous in their criminalization of peaceful protest and dissent, they have done precious little to bring to justice those guilty of real crimes. Only a handful of security personnel implicated in serious abuses have been prosecuted, and largely only low-ranking officers at that. Moreover, as Ali Saqer's case shows, even these have often resulted in absurdly light sentences at best. Against this backdrop, the UK government -- so consistently eager to talk up reform in Bahrain and to downplay ongoing violations there -- is surely running out of excuses for its untenable position.

The June meeting of the UN Human Rights Council offers the UK the chance to play a more constructive role in furthering respect for rights in that country, consistent with the UK's declared policy. While the UK has shown itself to be a strong leader on several issues at the Human Rights Council, mostly recently on Sri Lanka, on Bahrain its policy has been consistently weak -- refusing to support a critical statement in June 2012, and only signing subsequent ones last year when the language was watered down.

The Swiss and a number of other governments are now coordinating a new statement on Bahrain that highlights the government's ongoing failure to end rights abuses and ensure accountability for past violations. The UK should stop pretending that real progress is being made in Bahrain and instead back a strong stance at the Human Rights Council in June: that imposes costs on the Bahraini government for ongoing abuses and impunity, backs UN efforts to establish a country-based presence that will monitor rights, and provides clear benchmarks for substantive reform. The UK should also press vigorously for the release of all those unfairly imprisoned, allowing these leaders and activists to be part of a meaningful and inclusive process of national dialogue, and to help chart a better future for all Bahrainis.

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David Mepham is UK Director of Human Rights Watch. Follow him on Twitter @mephamd