The SNP accused the UK Government of tolerating human rights abuses as a “price worth paying” for trade deals, as the Scottish nationalists criticised the UK’s relationship with Bahrain.
But Foreign Office minister James Cleverly described Bahrain as an “important partner and friend” which cooperates on security and other areas of UK national interest, while claiming the country is making progress on human rights.
Leading a debate on the subject in the House of Commons, SNP’s Westminster human rights spokesman Brendan O’Hara said when it came to right and wrong, the Government’s position on Bahrain shows it has “clearly picked which side they are on”.
Mr O’Hara cited the case of a Bahraini professor of engineering, Dr Abduljalil al-Singace, imprisoned for life in 2011, who has reportedly suffered torture and sexual abuse at the hands of security forces.
Mr O’Hara said the message was “loud and clear from the minister, that everything that they have done for the last 10 years may have failed, but it is business as usual because human rights abuses is a price worth paying to secure a trade deal with just about anybody”.
He called on the Government to suspend its Gulf Strategy Fund and to establish “a public inquiry into whether the fund had supported regimes with poor human rights records”, as well as stopping all military exercises with Bahraini troops.
SNP MP Patricia Gibson (North Ayrshire and Arran) said: “Those who criticise the regime in Bahrain are subject to the most cruel and random treatment. It is an affront to all that is decent.
“As we’ve heard today, unfair trials of protesters and critics of the regime, ill-treatment of detainees which is tantamount to torture, the fabrication of evidence against those in custody, minority groups targeted, the use of the death penalty, the suppression of freedom of expression.
“Even reports of rape and electric-shock treatments for detainees, some of whom are juveniles. That is the ugly story of life under the current regime in Bahrain.”
Labour shadow Foreign Office minister Bambos Charalambous said: “It’s been argued that the UK Government can be seen as complicit in some of the abuse that has occurred because of its wilful lack of scrutiny about how UK funds are spent in the region.”
He said Bahrain “remains important to the UK” but “we expect the UK Government to call human rights abuses and stand up for what is right”.
Conservative MP Bob Stewart said the Bahraini government disputed that it kept political prisoners, adding all those jailed had “committed crimes”.
The Beckenham MP, who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Bahrain, told the Commons: “I am certain that no one is in prison simply for disagreeing with the regime. Many have been convicted with the evidence – which others may suggest has been tampered with – of being involved in terrorism in one way or another.
Foreign Office minister James Cleverly said: “The UK and Bahrain are indeed allies and partners. We work closely on defence, on security, yes of course on trade, but also on regional security issues.”
Mr Cleverly said accusations that the UK Government had been silent “on the issues in Bahrain that are of concern” is “more an indication” of a lack of listening.
He said: “Defending human rights and promoting democracy around the world is a priority for Her Majesty’s Government. We want to work to support countries like Bahrain, who have and continue to demonstrate a desire to adopt a more progressive and inclusive domestic set of measures.”
He said it was “not credible” to accuse the UK Government of both “bankrolling” and “trying to get money from Bahrain”.
He asked critics if the Government should “drive improvements in countries like Bahrain, or would they prefer Her Majesty’s Government just to stand on the sidelines and shout abuse as they have done?”
Mr Cleverly said: “We are better able to influence change through engagement, and dialogue and cooperation. And it is patently in the UK’s national interest to help countries like Bahrain benefit from our experience and expertise as they move on their journey towards essential reform.
“We of course recognise there is more work to be done.”
He also described how human rights oversight bodies in the country are supported by the UK Government, adding: “We believe that Bahrain is undertaking important and effective steps to address allegations of torture and mistreatment in detention.”
The minister said: “We commend the progress that [Bahrain] has made on human rights and the ambition for further development of political, social, economic and governmental institutions.”
He added: “We will continue to hold frank and sometimes difficult but nevertheless constructive discussions with out counterparts in Bahrain. And we will continue to support them through the Gulf Strategy Fund and other diplomatic means to help them become the very best that they can be.”