Bahrain-Linked ‘Think Tank’ Accused Of Trying To "Silence" MPs and Peers Raising Human Rights Abuses
Letters were sent to Parliamentarians about their comments about Bahrain
A group of MPs and peers have claimed the director of a British-based organisation has attempted to "silence" criticism of Bahrain's human rights record after they raised concerns in Parliament.
Omar Al-Hassan, the chairman of the Gulf Centre of Strategic Studies, wrote to Commons speaker Lindsay Hoyle in late November, asking him whether he believed MPs and peers who had raised concerns were "in line with the standards of the UK Parliament".
The GCSS, which has offices in London, Egypt and Bahrain, has a long history of defending Bahrain's human rights record, including submitting evidence to select committees and organising 'study' trips to the country.
In the letter seen by PoliticsHome, Al-Hassan accused MPs and peers of making "biased and fabricated" criticisms of the country, and claiming their interventions showed "ignorance" and "disregard" for the "many achievements Bahrain has made and is proud of in terms of human rights and human development".
Flagging the number of interventions they had made about Bahrain, Al-Hassan said this proved the country had "disproportionately been a target" and claimed the criticisms were "exaggerated".
According to Amnesty International, Bahrain continues to hold "unfair trials" for protestors and online critics of the government, and claimed that detainees were "ill-treated" and in some cases, subjected to torture.
The group added the country continued to hand down death sentences, including to those sentenced following "grossly unfair trials".
Speaking to PoliticsHome, Liberal Democrat peer Lord Scriven said the letter was "nothing more than a continuation of the amateurish and slap dash approach by the Bahraini authorities to try and deny their appalling human rights record and undermine or try to silence those of us who speak up."
The Lib Dem peer also claimed it was "clear to many that Omar Al-Hassan is in the pocket of the Bahraini Embassy here in the UK."
Al-Hassan, who has previously organised trips to Bahrain for MPs through the GCSS, was formerly a research assistant to ex-Conservative MP William Powell in the 1990s. Their relationship later attracted press attention after it was discovered that Powell was receiving regular payments from the GCSS and had served as a consultant to the group.
One former staff member from GCSS told PoliticsHome he believed the organisation was a “Bahraini front”.
"I've always described it as a front for the Ministry of the Interior,” they said. “When people asked about it, I would always describe it as a Bahraini front."
"If you look them up, one of the most recent things was [Al-Hassan] meeting with the heads of the council in Bahrain and praising the GCSS' work, so it looks like nothing has changed."
A spokesperson for the Bahraini government said: “As far as the Government of Bahrain is concerned the GCSS is an independent international think tank and acts accordingly."
Al-Hassan, who was involved in the running of an all-party group of MPs and peers on Bahrain until 2010, also allegedly provided House of Commons stationery to staff in his London office for writing letters on behalf of the group.
"We had supplies of House of Commons notepaper in the office to write letters on which was probably quite irregular,” the former staff member said.
They added they believed the group had received funding over the years from a number of different foreign nations, most recently from Bahrain.
According to Companies House, the group, which describes itself as a "think tank" listed assets of over £1m in its 2020 accounts, stating it had four members of staff working in the UK, and a further 57 abroad.
They also claimed Al-Hassan had once instructed his staff to attend and "disrupt" an event in the House of Lords where a Bahraini whistleblower was set to speak.
"[Al-Hassan] sent us a list of questions from the Bahrain office to accuse the Lord running the event and the guy of acting on behalf of foreign saboteurs or whatever. Of course, we didn't ask those questions, but that was the kind of activity that we had to engage in back then."
Bahraini state media have also reported frequent meetings between Al-Hassan and Bahraini officials who have praised the group's work, including a meeting in the country just weeks before he contacted Hoyle.
Labour MP Andrew Gwynne, who is also referenced in the letter, said he was "disappointed" by the letter, but was "not surprised by the tone of it, nor the attempts to single me out personally".
Gwynne said human rights abuses in Bahrain were "well documented and extremely concerning" adding he had recently raised concerns about academic Dr Abduljalil AlSingace", who has been been imprisoned for over 10 years, including being arrested in 2010 after he attended a seminar in the House of Lords where he spoke about the human rights abuses.
Dr AlSingace was arrested at Bahrain International Airport on his return, with the country's state news agency reporting he had been detained because he had "abused the freedom of opinion and expression prevailing in the Kingdom".
"I strongly believe that the UK must take a firm stand against human rights abuses, and I again call on the Foreign Office to address Dr AlSingace's case and the continuing deterioration of human rights in the region," Gwynne added. "I refuse to be intimidated by this continued correspondence from the regime and its intermediaries.
"I know that the Speaker has the utmost respect for parliamentarians and the House of Commons, and I have no doubt that he will continue to protect the rights of elected representatives to speak freely and without fear or favour."
A Liberal Democrat spokesperson said: "This letter is a transparent attempt to stifle parliamentary scrutiny and silence MPs who speak out against Bahrain's poor human rights record.”
In a written response to Al-Hassan, Lindsay Hoyle said his role was to "support debate and to uphold the rights of the Commons, including freedom of speech".
He added: "It would be wholly inappropriate for me to seek to prevent Members' raising issues as they saw fit. It is for individual MPs to decide who to consult and what weight to give to any representatives they receive."
Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, director at the Bahrain Institute for Rights & Democracy (BIRD), said: "It’s appalling that the Bahraini regime appears to be paying someone to intimidate and silence MPs. Hunger-striking activist, Ali Mushaima, witnessed Dr Omar leaving the Bahraini Embassy in London [late last year].
"Under the leadership of Ambassador Fawaz AlKhalifa, the embassy is once again emboldened by the lack of consequences to its crooked attempts to undermine British democracy."
Omar Al-Hassan has been approached for comment.
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