Britain and US Urged to Act after Bahrain Arrests Eight Political Activists
Britain and America were under renewed pressure last night to act against their close ally Bahrain after its courts handed out life sentences to eight political activists, including a wheelchair-bound dissident who was arrested after speaking to the House of Lords.
The eight politicians and human rights activists were among 21 people, most but not all Shia, accused of plotting against the monarchy and having contacts with foreign terrorist groups.
All 21 received jail terms, seven in absentia, with nine receiving 15 years and four shorter terms. Protesters set up barricades in Shia villages across the island last night, amid anger from human rights groups.
Among those jailed for life was Abduljalil Abdullah Al-Singace, head of the human rights section of Al-Haq, a radical Shia party, who was arrested in August on his return to Bahrain from London after addressing a House of Lords committee.
The leader of Al-Haq, Hassan Ali Mushaima, received the same sentence. He returned from self-imposed exile in London earlier this year.
The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, raised Mr al-Singace's case with his opposite number in Bahrain, Sheikh Khaled al-Khalifa, but Britain has been noticeably less outspoken about the Gulf state's crackdown on dissents than with other countries facing "Arab Spring" uprisings.
On Wednesday night Baroness Falkner, chairman of the Liberal Democrats' international affairs committee, claimed that Bahrain had been a "blind spot" for the Foreign Office, and called on the government to take action.
"If people who speak to us are arrested by our own allies without recourse, how are parliamentarians elsewhere going to trust us?" she said.
The Bahraini authorities fear that opposition, particularly from radical parties such as Al-Haq, is backed by Iran, and is intended to overthrow Sunni minority rule to create a Shia puppet state.
But western diplomats say they have seen little evidence for claims of Iranian interference. The United States last week added Bahrain to its list of countries it deems to be serious human rights abusers in the wake of the suppression of protests in February and March in which 31 people were killed.
Bahrain is home to the US Fifth Fleet and a key western strategic ally in the Gulf.
Mr Al-Singace is confined to a wheelchair, having suffered from polio when younger, and claims that while in custody he was tortured by being forced to stand for two days on his weak leg.
While Al-Haq calls for an end to the monarchy, the leader of Waad, a more moderate opposition party which calls for a constitutional monarchy, was also jailed for five years.
As the sentences were handed out, the defendants, who all denied the charges, chanted "peacefully, peacefully," before being led away.
Leaders of Al-Wefaq, Bahrain's biggest Shia party, said the verdicts cast doubt on the national dialogue which the government says it intends to conduct with the opposition. Waad was one of the parties invited to take part.