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Was the Bahraini ambassador trying to bribe British MPs?

Tue 1st Jan 2013

It is interesting to receive two different news stories on the same day both mentioning the Gulf state of Bahrain and the UK Parliament.

The first story was about awarding the Bahraini human rights activist Dr. Abdul al-Singace - the prolific writer, blogger, and head of the human rights office of the Haq Movement for Liberty and Democracy, a 2012 Hellman/Hammett Award for his commitment to free expression. Dr. al-Singace was an engineering professor at the University of Bahrain until he was dismissed after his prosecution in 2010. He was arrested in August of that year at Bahrain International Airport on charges of inciting violence and terrorism, on his return from a conference in the UK House of Lords, where he criticized human rights violations in Bahrain. He was held incommunicado in solitary confinement for six months and reportedly mistreated.

A month after his release in February 2011, he was arrested again in connection with his speeches and writings during pro-democracy protests, and sentenced to life in prison. Clearly, a story about an international award for commitment to human rights is a good story, but the second story is somehow juicer and seems like a Satan’s good will gesture at Christmas.

Ann Clwyd, a member of inquiry into human rights abuses by Bahraini regime was shocked to find a huge Christmas hamper packaged by the royal grocers, Fortnum & Mason, waiting for her arrival at her office.

Her staff were unsure whether it was a 'jubilee' hamper so they did not open it. But they had a peek inside and saw chocolates and champagne stored inside the huge hamper which they estimated it was nearly a metre long, 60cm wide and 60cm high. But they did not explore it further because Clwyd had concerns about who had sent it.

"I asked my researcher where it came from, but inside there was just a note saying that it was a Christmas hamper but no explanation of who had sent it," Clwyd told the Guardian newspaper.

A member of Clywd’s staff called the royal grocers to inquire about the sender, and guess what? The store confirmed the hamper was a gift from Alice Thomas Samaan, Bahrain's ambassador in London.

According to an article by the Guardian, Further inquiries from the newspaper established that Samaan had sent similar packages from the store to about 10 other UK MPs. Conor Burns, the Conservative MP for Bournemouth West, chairman of the all-party group on Bahrain, and a former public relations executive who went on a £3,279 trip funded by the Bahraini foreign ministry in October 2010 to observe elections in the country said he was also one of the recipients, but he said he had not yet opened his hamper.

Clwyd on the other hand, returned the hamper to the store and sent a letter to the embassy explaining that she could not accept it. She could not accept such present, not because many Bahraini people are poverty stricken and charity should start at home, or because she develops a rash when she eats delicious expensive chocolates, but simply because she has already criticised the Bahraini regime for torturing and imprisoning pro-democracy campaigners. It was only natural that she would be surprised to find a festive Fortnum & Mason wicker basket in her office, and it is only expected that Bahrain's ambassador to London would be criticised for sending such hampers to MPs sitting on a committee conducting an inquiry into human rights abuses in her country.

Clwyd herself is one of those sitting on the foreign affairs select committee that is conducting an inquiry into the Foreign Office's response to Bahrain's human rights abuses and chairs the all-party parliamentary human rights group.

"I just could not accept it given what has happened to the citizens of Bahrain. I said, 'Lets get it out of my office and send it back'," she said.

"What I sometimes do is distribute foodstuffs to charities. But given that the hamper is in London and I am on my way to Bournemouth, it isn't a big deal," she added.

Well, if I were in her shoes, I would have suggested they exchange it with its worth of bread to be distributed in impoverished neighbourhoods of Bahrain, where the people are content with a loaf of bread.

Bahrain which is ruled by Al-Khalifa family and hosts the US Navy's fifth fleet bans pro-democracy protests, rallies and gatherings and used martial law and received military and logistical help from similar Gulf neighbours Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates to put down last year's uprising.

I would say democracy is not about employing few women at high profile or decision making posts. Such policies have been too obvious to miss. Dictatorships in Arab region take such naive steps to mask their oppression to the rest of the nation. They know perfectly well that using women’s visibility in the media will con the Westerners who believe women’s presence in the diplomatic field is the most accurate calibre for measuring progress….it is not.

Iqbal Tamimi is a journalist and the Director of Arab Women Media Watch Centre in UK

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