§ 7.27 p.m.
§ Lord Avebury rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they will take to encourage the Government of Bahrain to promote democracy and human rights.
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, there has been a close relationship between Britain and Bahrain ever since 1820. The ties of friendship, business and common purpose in the Gulf make us sympathetic to the needs and aspirations of her people. For 150 years, down to the date of independence in 1971, our policy was to maintain the power of the ruling family but to encourage gradual change in the direction of better government and increasing democracy. The pace of change may have been rather slower than it was in other parts of the globe that came under British influence, and in the mid-1950s we suppressed a movement which demanded an elected parliament, a written constitution, trade union rights and freedom of expression.
§ But then, after independence, it looked as though Bahrain was developing from an executive monarchy to a constitutional monarchy, when, in 1972, the Amir agreed to elections for a constituent assembly. That led in turn to the adoption of the 1973 constitution, under which a national assembly of 30 elected members and 15 nominated government Ministers came into being.
§ But that experiment in democracy lasted for only 18 months. When the assembly refused to pass a state security Bill, which gave the authorities the power to detain anybody for periods up to three years, renewable indefinitely, the Amir dissolved the assembly on 26th August 1975, abrogated the constitution and proceeded to rule by decree.
§ In the 20 years since then, several initiatives have been taken for the restoration of the 1973 constitution and assembly. The most recent of those began in October 1994 when a group of prominent citizens from both the Sunni and Shia communities launched a petition to the Amir, couched in the most respectful terms, citing the unemployment situation, inflation, business losses, 1244 citizenship decrees, forced exile, restrictions on freedom of expression and subordination of the press to the government as some of the problems which the 25,000 signatories believed would be soluble with the aid of the restoration of the national assembly and the greater involvement of women in the democratic process.
§ That petition was to have been presented to the Amir on a date on or about 6th December, which was the 21st anniversary of the promulgation of the suspended constitution. But before that could happen, on 5th December Sheikh Ali Salman—a popular young preacher—was arrested for speaking in favour of the petition at his daily prayers, and scores of people were detained in a series of 2 a.m. raids on the same day. That sparked off demonstrations which have continued intermittently for the six months since then and also sparked off the wave of arrests by the authorities which resulted in the detention of some 3,000 people. I know that that figure is challenged by the Foreign Office. But Amnesty International, for instance, said that it had a list of 700 names of detainees and believed that the real total was far higher.
§ Both Amnesty International and myself were received today by Mr. Al Gosaibi, the Deputy Foreign Minister of Bahrain. We are extremely grateful to him for the courtesy that he showed us and the amount of time which he gave to me in a detailed discussion I had with him on the current situation in Bahrain. When I raised the question of the visit by Amnesty International to Bahrain, he told me that, while there was no objection in principle to the visit, no date had yet been agreed. Since then I have confirmed with Amnesty International that it has been trying for the past six months to go to Bahrain but has not yet reached a position where a date can be fixed. That is contrary to what the Bahrain authorities have been saying to the Government. I have seen letters sent by the Foreign Secretary to not one but several people in which he tells the correspondents concerned that Amnesty International has been invited to go to Bahrain. Perhaps the noble Baroness will deal with that point when she replies.
§ I hoped to go to Bahrain when the Bahrain authorities invited me last November, but that invitation was cancelled at the last moment on the grounds at that time that they were in the course of preparations for the meeting of the Gulf Co-operation Council, which was not due then for another month. Although several times since then I have asked for the resuscitation of the invitation, I am afraid that the position is still on hold and this morning, when I asked Mr. Al Gosaibi whether I could go immediately to Bahrain, he prevaricated. I am still in doubt as to whether it will ever be possible for me to go there and see at first hand some of the problems we are discussing this evening.
§ The detentions resulted in charges against some people, the number of which Mr. Al Gosaibi was not able to give me. I understand that 16 were convicted early in May and another 19 are said to have confessed to acts of sabotage. I unreservedly condemn any acts of violence or destruction of private or public property which have occurred in association with the demonstrations of the past six months. The authorities have every right to take firm action against the criminals who are committing those acts. However, they seem not to be able to 1245 distinguish in their own minds between violent saboteurs and criminals and those people who are peacefully agitating for the return of democracy.
§ Amnesty International is not satisfied with the conduct of the trials. It says that none of the defendants were granted access to lawyers or independent medical advice. Mr. Al Gosaibi told me this morning that all had received legal advice and there is a conflict of evidence on that point. I should like to ask whether the Government are concerned to ensure that internationally accepted legal norms are upheld in those cases. If so, have they made representations accordingly? Will the Government ask the Bahrain authorities to agree that international legal observers should be present at all the proceedings? Will they agree that any confessions extracted from the defendants under torture should be excluded from consideration by the courts?
§ One other point which arose in the discussion with Mr. Al Gosaibi was the question of rights of appeal from the state security court. I was given to understand that once one was convicted by that court, it was an end to the matter. But I was told this morning that everybody convicted there had a right of appeal, and again that matter needs to be clarified.
§ So far 14 people have died as a result of violence by the security forces, either during demonstrations or after being taken into custody by the police. As an example, 17 year-old Hamid Qasim was hit by a rubber bullet outside the Duraz Intermediate School at 1530 on 25th March, then shot again at point blank range as he lay on the ground, and dragged into the school which had been occupied by the riot police. The following morning his mutilated body was delivered to his family, with several fingers cut off, and severe wounds to the top of his head, the side of his face, and underneath his chin. An eye witness, from the same village, told me yesterday—he was present at the incident—that the fingers were found later in a blood spattered corner of the school playground. Of the five young men who saw Hamid being seized by the police, three were arrested a few weeks later and one, Nidal Habib Al-Nashabah, was murdered by the police on the same day. The fifth witness has escaped abroad.
§ I also spoke yesterday to an eye-witness of the killing of Abdel Qader El-Fatlawi, a 25 year-old driver, who was shot dead by the riot police in January while trying to cross the road. When he was taken to the Salmaniya hospital in Manama, mortally wounded, the doctors said that they couldn't treat him without permission from the Ministry of the Interior and he died untreated shortly afterwards. The body was delivered to his family in a hospital van between 0800 and 0830. Later in the morning, when the friends and relatives took his body for burial, they were attacked by riot police using tear gas, batons, and a helicopter firing metal pellets, and driven from the cemetery.
§ The detained are routinely tortured. I spoke yesterday to a young man who was subjected to the "falaka", a form of torture in which the victim is suspended by the knees and wrists from a pole, which is excruciatingly painful in itself, and then beaten on the soles of his feet. The victim gave me the names of some of the torturers, and I gather he has also reported them to Amnesty International. But the most shocking feature of the whole system of torture, 1246 killings and arbitrary detention, is that the man who presides over it, Mr. Ian Henderson, is a British citizen. Mr. Hogg seems to think that this is a matter of little consequence, but for the victims and their relatives, it implies British complicity in the crimes of the security forces.
§ Among the detained are women and children. Because no lists have been published, one cannot be precise about the numbers, though one authority gave me the estimate that 30 women are in custody and up to 50 children aged between 12 and 15.
§ The noble Baroness, Lady Chalker, said on 15th May when the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, asked a Question about Bahrain, that opposition groups must act responsibly and within the law. I hope that the noble Baroness agrees that the Government also should do so, though since the law is what the Amir says it is from time to time, many acts and even words may be contrary to the domestic law, but within the scope of the law as it should be if international norms of freedom of expression and assembly were observed.
§ One of the detained women was Mrs. Afaf Al-Jamri. I sent the noble Baroness a copy of the letter to Mr. Hogg detailing the victimisation of the whole family of Sheikh Abdul Amir Al-Jamri, an elder statesman who was a member of the 1973 national assembly and a high court judge. Mrs. Al-Jamri was arrested and tortured in front of her own father by the notorious Mr. Adel Flaifel on 8th May. I told the Minister this morning that we have had several accounts of torture by that individual, so there is the ring of truth about these accounts, which are by no means isolated. Mrs. Al-Jamri had been detained since 8th May, although I heard only this afternoon that she was released at 4 p.m. I was very glad to hear that. But she left behind her during the period of her detention children aged seven and nine—Hussain aged seven and Zainab aged nine—who had to be looked after by their grandmother because Mrs. Al-Jamri's husband was also in prison at the time. The grandmother was looking after some 12 children of the various sons and daughters and sons-in-law of Sheikh Al-Jamri. The whole family has been the subject of gross victimisation.
§ I sent the noble Baroness also a copy of a petition sponsored by a group of some 300 distinguished women intellectuals condemning any attacks on public property but also calling for an end to the use of live ammunition against demonstrators, forced entry to private homes and mass arrests, and the initiation of a national dialogue, freedom of speech, reactivation of the constitution and the participation of women in political decision-making. All of the women who signed that petition have been given verbal warnings that unless they recant and apologise, they will be fired. One, Professor Muneera Ahmed Fakhro, was called in by the president of the university on Saturday and given a final warning. She again refused to withdraw her signature, and she told her students that she expected it was the last occasion that she would see them.
§ Does not the Minister agree that if people are acting responsibly and within the law, as these women are, they are entitled to the active support of the international community, and particularly of women everywhere else in the world? Will she ask the Bahraini authorities not to 1247 fire any of the signatories and to have those who have already been dismissed reinstated and a withdrawal of the threats made against the others?
§ I asked the Minister, Mr. Douglas Hogg, to raise the detention of women and children in Bahrain with the authorities, particularly the detention of women, especially with the Beijing Conference on women's rights approaching. I asked him to suggest that parents and guardians be given access to the children who are being detained in Al-Khamees police station and elsewhere. It is an absolute right of parents to have access to their children in detention, and that surely must be dealt with immediately. I mentioned one case to the noble Baroness in my letter of 16th May. It is the case of a 15 year-old boy, Mohamed Ali Mohamed Ekri, who was arrested from Daih village on or about 10th April and was held incommunicado for a month before his mother, Mrs. Zahra Alawi, was finally allowed to see him. The boy, who was very frightened, told his mother that he had been beaten up in the prison and sexually assaulted.
§ When I went to see Mr. Hogg on 21st February about the violations of human rights in Bahrain, I was not successful in engaging him in the discussion of particular human rights violations, and he made it clear that our political and economic relations with the state made it inexpedient for us to raise matters of detail with them as we do with many other countries. He agreed that it was the custom for the Amir to receive subjects who want to petition him, but added that Ministers could not directly advise him to receive those who had circulated and signed this petition of 25,000 names. They could only say that we would encourage dialogue, which should have come to the same thing because it ought to have meant that those petitioners got to see the Amir. However, what the Amir decided to do was to see small groups of hand picked Sunnis and Shi' a stooges separately, all of them strong supporters of the regime, thus implying that the interests of the two groups were different. That is not the case at all. I believe that many people are united in wanting to move towards a constitutional monarchy and that there is no division of opinion on religious lines.
§ About 70 per cent. of the inhabitants of Bahrain are Shi'as and 30 per cent. are Sunnis, the religion of the ruling Al-Khalifa family. There is a tendency to suggest that the Shi'as are dangerous fundamentalist radicals, or even that they are Iranian fifth columnists. I had some of that from the Minister this morning. At one time Iran did claim sovereignty over Bahrain, on the tenuous basis of a temporary occupation some 200 years ago. But that matter was disposed of at the time of independence, when the UN ascertained that the majority of the people wanted an independent Arab state. There is no reason to suppose that they have changed their minds. A greater degree of democracy would certainly mean that fewer top posts were allocated to the exclusive clique of royals and their Sunni hangers-on, but it would not usher in a variant of the clerical rule found in Iran. The opposition in Bahrain is genuinely democratic and is liberal in its attitude to the participation of women in politics.
§ Elsewhere in the world, the Foreign Office is prepared to speak out in favour of democracy and human rights. The noble Baroness herself has spoken out in favour of 1248 human rights in Nigeria. The Government speak out for human rights in Burma and Iraq. They call for the restoration of democracy in those countries and for an end to detentions, torture and other abuses. For reasons that may be comprehensible, but are not creditable, they adopt a different standard when it comes to Bahrain, refraining from criticism and uttering the mantra of "dialogue" in hushed whispers behind the scenes.
§ The end of this week is the great festival of Ashura, the anniversary of the death of the Imam Hussain, the grandson of the Prophet, who was killed at the battle at Karbala. Imam Hussain is considered to be a symbol of the struggle against oppression and there are bound to be manifestations of the people's indignation in Bahrain, in spite of warnings delivered by the Minister of Justice that on this anniversary there were to be no political slogans, no foreigners were to participate and no villagers were to come into the capital, Manama. The democracy movement has to find some outlet, and if the government are unwilling even to listen to the people's grievances, they are bound to take to the streets.
§ It must surely be clear that after six months of unrest, the modest demands of the petitioners, which would have been acceptable to monarchs like Charles I or Louis XVI, have got to be accepted by the Amir. Britain can either encourage him to enter into a dialogue with the opposition with a view to effecting peaceful democratic reforms and ending the abuses of human rights, or we can keep our mouths shut and thereby encourage an attitude of reactionary conservatism rivalling the Bourbons of Naples. Which is it to be?
§ 7.47 p.m.
§ Lord Clinton-Davis
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has impeccable credentials in fighting for the recognition of human rights—and I pay tribute to him for that—not simply in relation to this matter but over many years and over many issues. He has revealed today not only a powerful and compelling indictment based upon the findings of Amnesty International but he has also raised at least some questions about an inconsistency of approach by the Government vis-à-vis Bahrain, when in fact, as he has rightly said, the Government call for the restoration of democracy elsewhere. It would be helpful to hear from the noble Baroness the response of the Government to that charge.
Of course, it is right that there are substantial conflicts of evidence between Amnesty International and the case mounted by the noble Lord and the view taken by the Bahrain Government. At the very least the noble Lord is right in saying that because of our traditional influence— it is no more than that today: it can be no more than that—the voice of Britain should be heard seeking to persuade those in power in Bahrain, perhaps in their own interests—certainly those of their people—to adopt rather more humanitarian standards. In my view, the noble Lord is right in asserting that the experiment in democracy in Bahrain was indeed shortlived. Certainly, the response of the government in dealing with many thousands of complaints made by citizens is worthy of further investigation.
1249 The catalogue of concerns expressed by the noble Lord and Amnesty International include harassment; the shooting of civilians; arbitrary arrests and detention without trial; a denial of the right to be able to see a lawyer in so many cases; allegations of torture and beatings; the extraction of confessions under duress; forced exile—although it is true that some have been able to return after some years abroad while others have been denied entry—trials that are certainly questionable in their processes and severe, perhaps unconscionably long sentences, with no right of appeal to a higher tribunal afforded to those who have been sentenced. So it is an indictment which is based on formidable evidence which has been adduced before the House tonight.
It is right to say that some relaxation of the situation has been permitted by amnesties being given to political prisoners and indeed to victims of forcible exile in March, May and December of last year. But the allegation remains of a continuing series of arbitrary arrests and detention of people claiming to be prisoners of conscience.
Amnesty International has called on the Government of Bahrain to have regard to and respect for internationally recognised human rights. It has welcomed the releases following the amnesties, in particular the release of two detainees whose cases had been raised in 1992 by Amnesty International. The most recent situation appears to show a further deterioration, with 16 defendants named by the noble Lord who have been sentenced to between three years and 10 years' imprisonment on charges which include sabotage and membership of a proscribed organisation; namely, Hezbollah. Further trials on similar charges are due to take place shortly.
Observers to the trials have been requested by Amnesty International. Let it be added that trials are held in camera. Apparently those requests have fallen on deaf ears. I remember going to observe courts martial even under the Greek junta in 1973. There can be no doubt that the presence of observers can have a very telling effect. Therefore, it is a matter of grave concern that the authorities in Bahrain do not seem prepared to allow an objective, independent view of those trials. I hope that the Government will at least say tonight that they will seek to utilise their influence with a friendly government in persuading them to do that.
Likewise, Amnesty International has sought permission to carry out investigations into allegations of human rights violations. Again, such requests appear to have been totally ignored.
Concerns that the right of peaceful protest is being abrogated on a substantial scale by the security forces has also been expressed by the noble Lord. The number of shootings which have taken place and the refusal by the Bahraini authorities to attempt to prevent killings or to investigate the situations which have led to them also raise grave suspicion.
It is also alleged by Amnesty International that the mass arrest of thousands of people has taken place. Although the Bahraini Government assert that these reports are exaggerated, implicitly it would appear that therefore there must be some force in what has been alleged. Of course, it is to be welcomed that just over a month ago about 120 political detainees were released. It is probable 1250 that that has resulted from the international criticisms which have been made. It is unlikely that, if we had remained mute, that situation would have developed. But the fact remains that the names of detainees and details of where they are detained have been denied. The families of the people, even if they are suspected of grave crimes or even convicted of them, are entitled to no less than that information.
The noble Lord referred to the denial of independent medical care. It will be interesting to see what the Government have to say about that allegation, as, indeed, it will be to note what is said about the allegation of detention concerning women and children. I gather that about 43 children between the ages of 10 and 16 are so detained. So all these issues give rise to grave anxiety, as I believe the noble Baroness will acknowledge.
I was not originally scheduled to take part in this debate, but I took the opportunity, albeit late in the day, to speak to His Excellency the Ambassador of Bahrain on the telephone. It is right to point out what is said on behalf of the Bahraini Government. He said that those arrested were suspected of being, or were ultimately found to be, guilty of acts of violence and sabotage, including the spraying of a mosque with machine-gun fire. I am not sure where that took place, but that is what he said had occurred. He spoke of terrorism against innocent people and private property and of people who were detained being members or supporters of extremist groups whose design is to destroy the state. He alleges that Amnesty International fails to take account of the dire threat posed by these people to the state and its people or to recognise the provocation afforded to the government by these alleged acts of violence.
It is not easy to come to conclusions about these matters without personal knowledge. I have not visited Bahrain. I have certainly not received an invitation to do so and, to the best of my knowledge and belief, neither has any Member on this side of the House as far as the Front Bench is concerned. We have to ask questions, and important questions have been raised by the noble Lord in a very compelling speech this evening.
In general terms the case I submit from these Benches amounts to this. I believe that respect for human rights need not be inimical to the protection of the fundamental rights of a state to protect itself. Indeed, it is in the best interests of the government in pursuing their business to accord to prisoners the right of proper representation and fair trial and not to engage in abuses of those situations. I heard the noble Baroness say the other day that it was the duty of people to act within the law. Of course, that is right where there is law and it is capable of being properly and democratically enforced. But it hardly applies where there is no law or a complete abuse of it by any government, particularly one not freely elected.
I believe that it is therefore incumbent on the Bahraini authorities to make it clear that they are intent on establishing a rule of law, if they have not already done so, and on ensuring that that rule of law will be respected. Surely as a government and a country we should raise our 1251 voices as we have done elsewhere to ensure that those basic liberties and basic human rights are observed. If we do not, we are hardly doing our duty to our friends.
§ 8 p.m.
§ Baroness Chalker of Wallasey
My Lords, I am grateful for this opportunity to take forward our discussions on Bahrain. At Question Time on 15th May we sought to open up the subject. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for his letter of yesterday's date and for all the other correspondence which he has now made available to me.
Perhaps I may begin by saying that we should not lose sight of the fact that Bahrain has been a good and close friend to the United Kingdom. Indeed, we should not lose sight of the many issues which have been raised both in tonight's debate and over a long period, particularly over the past six months. Bahrain played a valuable role in 1990–91 and again last year when the security of the middle eastern region was threatened by Iraq. Bahrain is an important trading partner of the United Kingdom and more than 7,000 British citizens live happily and peacefully in Bahrain. However, there is no doubt that there are problems, particularly where there is unrest for whatever reason and when people are arrested or detained without charge.
The noble Lords, Lord Avebury and Lord Clinton-Davis, asked me what steps the British Government can take to encourage the Government of Bahrain to promote human rights, the rule of law and human decency. Both noble Lords also asked a number of subsidiary questions which are covered by those phrases. One of the advantages of our close relationship with Bahrain is that we talk frankly and directly about a wide range of issues. One of the most important issues is human rights. I am sure from experience of other parts of the world which I know rather better than the Middle East that we need to offer support and encouragement for improved procedures. We need to be constructive in giving help and advice. If we have views which are clearly at variance because our evidence is different from that which is being presented to us by the government of another country, we should make our views and differences known in private discussions as well as acting with other nations to try to promote in public fora a far better standard of human rights worldwide.
Let us put Bahrain in context. It is not the only country where we have a concern about human rights. However, we are concerned about the rule of law and the capacity of a country to have a system of law which can be respected. We shall continue to make public statements where appropriate and, above all, to have private discussions where that may help more quickly to improve the situation for the people of that country. We shall continue to take a keen interest in Bahrain. The ambassador in London knows that we shall offer as much help, support and advice as we can. I am sure that noble Lords who have had contact with Bahrain's ministers and ambassador will know that they too are keen to improve their situation.
It has always been our policy to promote good government throughout the world. However, that does not mean that we should automatically try to force our version 1252 of democracy on countries with very different cultures and traditions. In many parts of the world it is critically necessary to make sure that the form of democracy that is selected by the people of that country fits their culture and tradition. We cannot go round forcing our views on other people. However, we believe that there must be respect for human rights and the rule of law in all countries.
In the case of the Gulf states, we have always made clear the importance that we attach to consultation. The establishment two years ago of a Consultative Council in Bahrain was a step in the right direction. We hope to see the role of that council broaden and develop. One way in which we can encourage that is to forge close links between the Consultative Council in Bahrain and our own Parliament. We have invited the Chairman of the Bahrain Consultative Council to pay an official visit to the United Kingdom later this year. I very much hope that he will take up that invitation. We were pleased that a large parliamentary delegation visited Bahrain two weeks ago. We are keen to develop more such contacts, and shall do our best in the Foreign Office to offer advice and assistance, because such contacts are an important backdrop to changing a situation which worries many Bahrainis just as much as some of your Lordships.
The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, referred to his discussions this morning with the Deputy Foreign Minister, and particularly to the question of a visit to Bahrain by Amnesty International, and indeed any other non-governmental organisation which would be useful in improving the situation of many of the people about whom the noble Lord spoke. We have encouraged the Bahrainis to contact Amnesty International to agree the terms of such a visit. We were pleased to learn that representatives from Amnesty International met the Deputy Foreign Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, this morning. That is a step forward in helping us to share information. However, the fact that the Deputy Foreign Minister could not respond to some of the noble Lord's questions and the fact that he would have to refer back to Bahrain does not surprise me in the slightest. Their situation is very different. If Foreign Office Ministers in this country have not been briefed on an issue, they will not give a definitive answer on which they may later have to go back—
§ Baroness Chalker of Wallasey
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, is trying to impute to me something that I am not about to say and which is not true. I hope that his sotto voce intervention will have missed the Hansard Reporters.
It is important that we keep the dialogue going. However uncomfortable this morning's discussion may have been at times—I imagine that it was—it is important that that dialogue is actually taking place. In his letter of yesterday, the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, gave me a lot of information. I was pleased to receive it, sad to read it, but determined that we should do something about it. The British ambassador will call on the Interior Minister, Shaikh Mohammed bin Khalifa, tomorrow morning so that the specific cases mentioned in the noble Lord's letter can be raised. I shall of course respond.
1253 Both noble Lords referred to the recent disturbances in Bahrain. It is true that apart from the incidents that have been mentioned in tonight's debate, the overall situation has been calm for some time. However, it is critically important that every effort is made to address the issues peacefully. Dialogue is the only way in which the government and the Shia leaders will achieve a proper resolution of those issues. Therefore that dialogue must continue. Perhaps we can help with the problem of unemployment among the young. The Bahrainis will want to tackle that issue. We have been discussing it. Unemployment among the young is a very particular issue in Bahrain. It is something with which we can help. I know that the outcome will take some time, but we can address problems together.
We are also clear that the situation with regard to detainees needs to be looked at. Detention without trial is not right. We have always maintained that. We know too that the Bahraini authorities share that view. Some of the detainees have now been charged and trials have begun. As the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, said, a large number of detainees have been released without charge. I am told that releases are continuing on an almost daily basis. For instance, 150 prisoners were released in a special amnesty to mark the Eid holiday in May. But I still share the concern about the series of cases about which we continue to hear. I might offer noble Lords an open invitation to do as the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, never ceases to do, which is to give us the information as he receives it, just in case it has not reached us by some other means. I am glad that the noble Lord brings the information to our attention.
I am told that most of the women who were detained have now been released. We do not have evidence of systematic sexual or physical abuse of female prisoners, although that has been alleged on a number of occasions. If there is such evidence, I would expect the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and others to bring it to our attention, and we would condemn it strongly.
The noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, cited the cases of 43 children aged between 10 and 16 who are in detention. I believe they are regarded by the Bahrainis as teenagers. It is a matter of concern that some of them may also have been involved in the disturbances, and so perhaps the rather softer attitude—perhaps the too soft attitude—we sometimes take to youngsters in this country is not mirrored by the action taken in Bahrain.
§ Lord Avebury
My Lords, before the Minister leaves the subject of children, will she respond to my point about the access to children by parents and guardians? An important feature of the system is that the authorities do not let the parents see the children, sometimes for periods of upwards of a month.
§ Baroness Chalker of Wallasey
My Lords, I am obviously concerned about that, and I was just coming to what the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, said about the failure to give parents access to children. That is yet another point which I would expect our ambassador to be able to take up in some detail. It is important that we take this matter in a measured way, examining each case as it comes and taking it up with the Bahraini authorities.
1254 In Bahrain there are people who are genuinely aware of and committed to human rights. Indeed, Bahrain is already a party to two international conventions—one on racism and one on the rights of the child. It is in that context that many of the cases which have been discussed should be taken up. We urge Bahrain to consider ratification of other instruments which are part of the international human rights conventions such as instruments on torture and political and civil rights. They are important. If only there were a greater understanding of them, the whole question of dialogue between government and those of opposing views might be undertaken in a framework of greater understanding than is currently the case.
The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, spoke about the need for fair trials. He knows full well that we would expect fair trials for those who have been accused. Subject to Bahraini procedures, we believe that it would be helpful if foreign observers were able to monitor the trials. That is something which we should look at.
A number of other points were made. I should detain the House too long if I were to go into some of them in detail, and there are a couple upon which I wish to check before I respond.
I do not believe that violence will lead to a resolution of Bahrain's problems. That is the view also of the Government of Bahrain. There are there occasions, as in other places around the world, when in order to contain disturbances some police may use excessive force. I do not believe that that is generally the case. It is true that if one has to use tear-gas and rubber bullets, as the noble Lord will know, people are sometimes hurt who should not have been caught up in the conflict, but that happens on both sides. I am sorry that when the demonstrations became violent last December the use of tear-gas and rubber bullets led to the death of several demonstrators, and many more were injured. Policemen too were killed in the course of their duty at that time. That is why I said that it is dialogue, not violent disturbances, which will change society in Bahrain. The answer is peaceful dialogue, not confrontation.
The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, also commented on a certain Mr. Ian Henderson. I wish to make it clear beyond peradventure that Mr. Henderson is not a representative of Her Majesty's Government or of Britain. We cannot take responsibility for every British citizen overseas, and what he does is his own responsibility. He is not placed in Bahrain by us. We have nothing whatsoever to do with him. To quote a famous phrase, "He is not one of us".
I want to come to one of the questions that I know interests Bahrain. It is that of foreign dissidents in the UK. It must sometimes seem strange to governments of other countries—it even seems strange to some of our own number, I must say—that opponents of other governments find their way to London, and it is from London that they conduct their opposition. There are times when their actions are disgraceful. No foreigners who break our law or act in a disgraceful way, as do some opponents of foreign governments, are welcome here.
We have both ancient parliamentary law and modern case law. We are not always free to act as we would wish with some of these so-called visitors from overseas. They do not act according to our way of thinking. They should 1255 not think that we approve of them or their activities. The ways in which some dissidents exploit Britain's freedoms and our legal appeals procedure are thoroughly reprehensible. Some people use the faith of Islam as a cloak for terrorism. We all know that the terrorism that is so exhibited is just as much a threat to Arab governments as it is to Western ones. It has nothing to do with Islam.
On the question of those foreign dissidents in the UK, I am just saying that there are some here who we wish were not here, and there are those who use their presence here not just to disgrace their own countries but to seek to disgrace ours as well, and they are not welcome.
§ Lord Avebury
My Lords, if the Minister has any knowledge of persons who, purporting to be refugees in this country, are planning and perpetrating acts of violence, she should report it to the police. I do not know of such people. I have heard such language being used by the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister, and now by the Minister. Without any shred of evidence, it labels a whole community as being potential terrorists and criminals. That is not fair.
§ Baroness Chalker of Wallasey
My Lords, I am afraid that the noble Lord takes remarks made about a few as being our general view. That is not so. I repeat that those who come here and claim, as some do, to be acting on behalf of other countries and who literally encourage terrorism are not welcome here any more than they are in their own countries. They are the few, but it is always the few who let down the case for proper dissension and who undermine the chance of dialogue for the opposition in a country such as Bahrain. The noble Lord should not credit me with saying things that I neither said nor meant—
§ Lord Clinton-Davis
My Lords, I thank the Minister for giving way. I would not expect her to engage in any kind of generalised attack upon refugees, asylum seekers and so forth. That would not be in character. However, it 1256 is right to observe that sometimes criminal activities are undertaken but it is not clear that information about them reaches the ears of the police in good time for action to be taken. One could not have an example clearer than the recent arrests in relation to the attack on the Israeli Embassy and on a Jewish charity in Finchley. I believe that it is unreasonable to cite the remarks of the noble Baroness as suggesting an overall attack on all refugees and asylum seekers.
§ Baroness Chalker of Wallasey
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis. As he said, it is the few who create an enormous problem for the country in which they seek refuge—so they say—and for the country from which they come, whose way of life they seek to change by violent non-democratic means. We wish to encourage and help to achieve the democratic path in those countries. While we shall give refuge to people who are threatened by their former governments, far too many people come here and abuse that. They let down the real dissidents and natural opposers of the government with which they cannot have a dialogue at the present time.
All that having been said, in recent years Bahrain has made considerable progress on human rights. We acknowledge and welcome that process but there is still room for improvement, as I said on 15th May. It is true that the recent disturbances did not help and that the cases cited by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, in his letters and in today's debate give us real cause for worry. As I have said to him, we are taking those up but, unlike some other countries, Bahrain is showing a genuine willingness to make improvements and to listen. We intend to be, as good friends, a spur to better human rights and to a better life for the people of Bahrain. We also intend to encourage the promotion of sensible and fair laws, which is what every Member of your Lordships' House would want.
§ House adjourned at twenty-four minutes past eight o'clock.