British government contractors have been training Bahraini regime prison guards amid a brutal crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in the tiny Persian Gulf kingdom.
Contractors for the Britain’s Foreign Office spent a total of 685 days in Bahrain training guards from 2015 to the end of 2016, making 28 visits to the country in 12 months, according to documents obtained by London-based rights group Reprieve.
The contractors are employees of NI-CO, a company owned by the Northern Irish government and appointed by the Foreign Office in Bahrain, which has trained more than 400 prison guards as part of a contract worth the equivalent of $1.2m.
According to the MEE website, calls for the Belfast-based company to halt training security forces in Bahrain have consistently fallen on deaf ears, despite claims that it is working with organizations linked to torture and mistreatment.
The previously unreported scale of British involvement with the Bahraini prison system, revealed after a Freedom of Information request, has angered rights campaigners, who say it allows the oil-rich state to "shield itself" from international criticism and to "act with impunity".
The training work carried out by NI-CO is thought to part of a controversial £2m-a-year British program of support for Bahrain's security and justice system.
The details of Britain's support for Bahrain, a key West Asia ally whose prisons have received millions of pounds worth of support from Britain since 2011, comes as a string of high-profile arrests and detentions of journalists and opposition figures has sparked international condemnation.
On Wednesday democracy activist Ebtisam al-Sayegh was charged under anti-terrorism laws after two weeks of interrogations, amid claims of torture and sexual abuse.
Bahrain says the charges relate to plots to attack members of the security forces and receiving funding from Hezbollah, which is prescribed as a terrorist organisation in Bahrain.
However, the day before Sayegh was charged, Dubravka Simonivic, the UN special rapporteur on violence against woman, condemned her "arbitrary detention" and called for an investigation into allegations of torture.
Last week Amnesty International said it was clear that the "Bahraini authorities will go to any length to silence criticism."
"The UK training has taught the Bahraini government how to shield itself from international criticism and emboldened it to act with impunity," Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, director of advocacy at the London-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy told MEE.
According to experts appointed by the United Nations office of the high commissioner for human rights (OHCHR), the Bahrain forces used “excessive and lethal force to disperse peaceful protestors” – not for the first time – resulting in five deaths which the OHCHR condemned as unlawful killings. Dozens more people were injured in the assault, and 286 people are said to have been arrested and detained. Grimly familiar accounts of torture by the security services have seeped out again from Bahrain’s police cells.
“Over the past year, there has been a sharp deterioration of the human rights situation in the country,” the OHCR experts said. “This has included unacceptable restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of association and peaceful assembly, aimed at muzzling any discordant voice and suppressing dissent … It is tragic that while security forces are meant to protect life, their actions have shown otherwise.
Anti-regime protesters have held demonstrations in Bahrain on an almost daily basis ever since a popular uprising began in the country on February 14, 2011. People have been demanding that the Al Khalifah tribal dynasty relinquish power and a just system representing all Bahrainis be established. Many people have lost their lives and hundreds of others sustained injuries or been arrested, illegally detained and brutally tortured while many have seen their citizenship revoked. In March 2011, troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — themselves repressive tribal Arab regimes — were deployed to aid Bahrain in its brutal crackdown.