One of Amber Lyon's reports from Bahrain for CNN, whom she now accuses of shutting away her award-documentary (see 0735 GMT)
Mr Douglas Alexander (Paisley and Renfrewshire South) (Lab): The Bahraini Government have long claimed their determination to pursue the path of reform and reconciliation, but only yesterday it emerged that the retrial of 20 activists and Opposition figures had resulted in all of them being found guilty, with long sentences and, in the case of eight defendants, life sentences. In light of this, can the Foreign Secretary set out the British Government’s judgment as to whether these were fair trials? More widely, what is his assessment of the Bahraini Government’s commitment to reform and reconciliation?
Mr Hague: I am very disappointed at the Bahraini civil court’s decision to uphold all the sentences of 20 political activists in Bahrain. We welcome the decision to review these cases in a civilian court but we remain very concerned by some of the charges that defendants were convicted of, and I urge the Bahraini Government to ensure that the human rights and freedoms of their citizens are fully upheld at all times. We are aware that the defendants can now appeal to a further court and we hope that this will be conducted thoroughly, with urgency and with due legal process. That will be one of the tests of the Bahraini Government’s commitment to reform.
Whilst the question was likely prompted by Tuesday's verdict in the trial of 20 activist, its timing also suggests the possibility that Labour may be seeking to make a wider issue of the British Government's controversial support for Bahrain. Up to now, Labour MPs like Jeremy Corbyn and Dennis MacShane have been vocal critics of the Bahrain regime, buut the leadership has been comparatively quiet. Alexander and Labour leader Ed Miliband were last vocal in April, when they both called for the Formula 1 Grand Prix in Bahrain to be cancelled.
Whatever else it was, yesterday's verdict in the appeal of Bahrain's opposition leaders was certainly not a surprise. After a week in which the Minister of Justice was forced to retreat on a decision to relocate a critical Sunni cleric after protest from ordinary citizens and a "meeting" with Sunni "ulama", it is difficult to see how the state could have weathered the storm of criticism that would have followed from an acquittal or even from reduced sentences for the main accused. (The sentence of one individual --- Al-Har Yusuf Mohammed Al-Sumaikh --- was reduced from 2 years to 6 months.) If Bahrain is unwilling to confront its nominal Sunni support base even over a minor matter, in other words, what were the chances it would initiate a much fiercer fight over the fate of opposition leaders --- opposition leaders it has spent the previous 18 months demonizing as Iranian-backed terrorists?
In this sense, the outcome of the trial was determined long ago, back when 20-foot-tall billboards all across the island proclaimed the guilt of Bahrain's conspirators. "Disease," they read, "must be excised from the body of the nation: from now on, we won't keep quiet about any mistakes or excesses by those who abuse Bahrain and its people." Unfortunately for Bahrain, including for the government itself, these words would prove prophetic. The subject in this case, security-minded Sunni citizens, have indeed kept their word, refusing to "keep quiet" either about those seen as breaking the law with continued protest activities, or those deemed lax in enforcing it, including King Hamad himself.
Even today, following the confirmation of the original verdicts, Sunni message boards are dominated by those who want the state to go even further. As some are happy to celebrate the court's decision, another popular thread argues, "We need to go back to the State of National Security". Such is the catch-22 in which Bahrain finds itself: having fanned the flames of sectarian politics for so long, how can the government begin to pull the country back from the brink without igniting an even wider political conflagration by alienating its critical support base?
0745 GMT: The regime-linked Gulf Daily News has no doubts about Tuesday's appeal court decision on 20 activists, "Terror Links Proved". It also indirectly mentioned rejection of complaints by Britain and the US about the verdicts, "The Foreign Ministry last night rejected any intervention in sentences handed down by an independent judiciary following a fair trial. It also rejected any statements against the ruling."
The Gulf Daily News also headlines, "Human Rights Pledge by Premier":
Bahrain will submit its report on recommendations of the UN Human Rights Council this month. His Royal Highness Prime Minister Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa yesterday chaired a work meeting to discuss preparations - and vowed to spare no efforts in promoting rights for all. The meeting also spotlighted steps by government departments to implement the recommendations.
0735 GMT: Tuesday's appeal court decision to uphold lengthy sentences on 20 activists --- including 13 behind bars in Bahrain, seven of whom are serving life terms --- continues to cause ripples. After Britain criticised the verdicts and called for a proper legal process, the US State Department followed last night:
We are deeply troubled by today’s developments in which an appeals court upheld the vast majority of convictions and sentences of 13 Bahraini activists.
We urge the Government of Bahrain to abide by its commitment to respect detainees’ right to due process and to transparent judicial proceedings, including fair trials and access to attorneys. It is important that verdicts are based on credible evidence and that judicial proceedings are conducted in full accordance with Bahraini law and Bahrain’s international legal obligations. We call on the Government of Bahrain to investigate all reports of torture, including those made by the defendants, as it has pledged to do, and to hold accountable those found responsible.
We continue to call on all parties, including the government, to contribute constructively to reconciliation, meaningful dialogue and reform that bring about change that is responsive to the aspirations of all Bahrainis. As we have said, Bahrain needs dialogue and negotiation to build a strong national consensus about its political future, strengthen its economic standing, and make it a more prosperous country and a more stable ally of the United States.
That last sentence is especially intriguing --- is Washington warning that, if rights are not seen to be upheld and dialogue is not genuinely pursued, it will cut loose an "unstable" partner? Or, as Josh Shahryar argued yesterday, will this be another cause where "the US will release a report. Then nothing further will happen. Just as it has for 18 months, 'stability' will trump human rights."
There are also questions this morning about media coverage of the conflict. Former CNN correspondent Amber Lyon, speaking with Glenn Greenwald of the Guardian, has offered a lengthy account of how her award-winning documentary was effectively shut down by her employer --- shown only once on CNN US and never aired on CNN International.
E-mails from CNN executives to Lyon reportedly said, after the single presentation of the documentary, "We are dealing with blowback from Bahrain govt on how we violated our mission," and asked her to include lines such as "Bahrain's foreign minister says security forces are not firing on unarmed civilians" and "activists like Nabeel Rajab [are accused] of doctoring photos … fabricating injuries".