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Is Britain right to be working with the Bahraini army?

There have been many occasions where we have been shocked by levels of dishonesty of opposition groups which label themselves as human rights advocates. The problem is that this dishonesty has been matched by the incredible degree of credulity among those willing to listen to them in the Western media, political circles and within the NGO community.

In the most recent instance, these opposition entities have encouraged their media and political sympathizers to protest loudly over joint training between the Bahraini armed forces and British military personnel at the new permanent naval base in Bahrain.

Why is it that human rights campaigners are “outraged” this time? - Because Bahraini soldiers were reportedly being trained in the use of sniper rifles. The Independent newspaper claimed that Bahrain’s armed forces “violently put down pro-democracy protests during the Arab Spring of 2011”.

The Independent reports that “pro-democracy activists in Bahrain say the military training by elite troops … proves that the British Government is ‘turning a blind eye’ to abuses in the country.” The British Labour Party’s shadow Defence Secretary claimed that sniper units in Bahrain “risk being deployed against the civilian population”.

The only problem with these claims is that there is not a shred of evidence that snipers have ever been deployed in Bahrain against civilian targets, or that such a scenario could ever happen.

The opposition has made very outlandish claims about the 2011 death toll. In fact, Citizens for Bahrain research has analyzed every single fatality report that the opposition has filed since February 2011, including all the data cited by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry. This can be found here.

This documentation shows that (according to the BICI) 13 protesters and civilians lost their lives as a direct result of actions by the security forces. (5 security forces personnel were killed by protesters, 8 further civilians, 6 expats were killed by rioters and there were 4 deaths in detention).

Of those who died in direct confrontations with police, the BICI found that these fatalities tended to happen when police were overwhelmed by groups of demonstrators in violent confrontations and resorted to lethal force (for example, in the instances of Ali Mushaime and Fadhel al-Matrook). In all such incidents police personnel have gone to trial.

The BICI report cites just one single incident where family members alleged the use of snipers in deaths of protesters. This occurred for the 21 March death of Bahiya al-Aradi (Case Study number 12 in BICI). The BICI concluded: “The Commission has found no evidence to support the family’s belief that the deceased was shot by a sniper”.

The truth is that there are not even any serious allegations of military snipers being used at any point during the unrest.

However, politicians, NGOs and media outlets have not taken the trouble to look into this issue; they have simply taken opposition propaganda on trust and propagated outlandish claims that the Bahraini military cannot be trusted to receive legitimate training.

Bahrain has lost several personnel in collective efforts to restore peace in Yemen. Bahrain is also an active member of the Coalition fighting terrorism in the region. There are pressing reasons why the Bahraini military needs to be receiving training and working closely with friendly nations to develop joint capabilities.

And yes: Bahrain has a right to be purchasing military equipment from Britain and other allies as part of its UN Charter-enshrined right to be able to protect itself; and so as to be an active participant in global efforts to combat terrorism and enhance regional stability.

Britain has been a valuable partner in constructively supporting efforts for reform in Bahrain, for example; through training programmes for the judiciary and prison authorities in abiding by international human rights standards. The new permanent naval base is an important message of the UK’s solidarity with Bahrain and support for efforts towards democratization and reform. Thus, joint military exercises are a welcome measure for reinforcing Bahrain’s capacity to defend itself and play its role in regional efforts to consolidate peace and security.

The Western media has failed to challenge and investigate claims by the opposition before going ahead and reporting them as true. Serious mistakes were made, and the BICI report empowered the authorities to take a clear-sighted look at these mistakes and rectify them.

The media and other political circles are wrong to portray Bahrain as being identical to other states where snipers, tanks and automatic weapons were used to disperse demonstrators. At the height of the February unrest, several opposition activists told journalists that they were being attacked by Apache helicopters – despite the fact that Bahrain didn’t possess such equipment and helicopters never being used in such a manner.

We hope for greater honesty and integrity from these outlets; and greater wisdom in listening to such claims with very heavy doses of skepticism.

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