A Foreign Office minister has been accused of “covering up” an alleged case of torture in the state of Bahrain, a key Middle Eastern ally whose prisons system has received millions of pounds worth of support from Britain.
The statements by MP Tobias Ellwood concern the case of Mohammed Ramadan, a 32-year-old airport policeman who was arrested for involvement in the killing of a police officer in February 2014 and subsequently sentenced to death. Activists say he confessed falsely to the crime after being tortured.
On 19 April this year, Ellwood submitted an answer to the House of Commons in which he said British embassy officials had been in direct contact with Bahrain’s prison ombudsman and that the watchdog, which is part of a programme that receives £2 million worth of support from the Foreign Office, had told his department there had been "no allegations of mistreatment or torture" in relation with the case.
BuzzFeed News has learned that not only was this incorrect, it was a line the Foreign Office stuck to for months despite being repeatedly provided with evidence to the contrary by human rights organisations.
Last month Ellwood’s line shifted to: “We appear not to have received any evidence in relation to this case.” BuzzFeed News has seen documents that suggest this was also incorrect and that several pieces of evidence showing there had been complaints of torture had in fact been handed to the Foreign Office.
Days later, Ellwood wrote to campaigners, admitting: “We fully acknowledge that complaints [of torture] were made and my response was given in good faith.” The parliamentary record has yet to be corrected regarding his statements.
The Foreign Office recently corrected a series of statements regarding another Middle East ally, Saudi Arabia, which is accused of targeting civilians during its bombing campaign in Yemen. Campaigners accused the department of “outright distortions”, but a Foreign Office source told BuzzFeed News the corrections had been made simply to ensure the parliamentary record was consistent.
Liberal Democrat Tom Brake MP said: “It is appalling that yet again Tobias Ellwood has been covering up allegations of serious human rights abuses by questionable regimes, and unacceptable that this is the second time in two weeks Ellwood has been forced to retract statements he made to parliament. This raises serious questions about his ability to continue in this important government role.
“Torture is never justified, and the Foreign Office needs to urgently review the £2 million given to an agency which clearly tried to cover up allegations of torture in Bahrain.
"Moreover, Bahrain has been consistently left off the FCO [i.e. Foreign Office] list of Human Rights Countries of Concern, despite frequent and well-documented claims of human rights violations, including torture, false imprisonment, and the silencing of opposition. This position is no longer tenable, and I call on Tobias Ellwood to stand up for human rights and stop defending the indefensible, and ensure that Bahrain is now added to this list.”
Labour MP Helen Goodman said: “This is a very worrying case and forms part of a larger pattern in which the Foreign Office gives the Bahraini government money whilst refusing to ask questions about human rights abuses. In order to avoid accusations that he is misleading parliament, Tobias Ellwood should now correct the record and issue a full statement about this case.
"British taxpayers’ money should not be funding an ombudsman or a regime implicated in torture or its concealment. The minister must take full responsibility and give a proper account to parliamentarians.”
When Ellwood made his initial claim on 19 April, he said his officials had been in contact with Bahrain’s prisons ombudsman, “who has confirmed that whilst there have been a number of complaints raised with his office in the case of Mr Ramadan, there have been no allegations of mistreatment or torture”.
However, BuzzFeed News has seen a complaint sent to the ombudsman almost two years earlier, on 16 July 2014, by the human rights organisation Americans for Human Rights and Democracy in Bahrain. It describes his alleged torture in detail, saying:
Security officers immediately began insulting Mohamed upon transport to the CID. They insulted Mohamed, his family, and his religion. They blindfolded him and took him to a cold room. They handed Mohamed a phone and he spoke to someone who threatened him to confess. The officers took Mohamed to another room and began torturing him. They beat, slapped, and kicked him all over his body, focusing on his head and ears. They called him a traitor and accused him of killing an officer. When Mohamed denied these accusations, they beat him more violently. This torture continued for four days.
The ombudsman eventually acknowledged receipt of the letter on 19 January 2016. BuzzFeed News has also seen a 2015 letter from the ombudsman to the same organisation that acknowledges Ramadan’s wife also submitted a complaint in April 2014 regarding “her husband’s medical treatment and mistreatment”.
The fact she had made a complaint was mentioned in a submission Bahrain sent to European MEPs in January 2016 as they prepared to pass a motion condemning the treatment of Mohammed Ramadan and calling for his pardon, but mention of “mistreatment” was excised.
An email sent by the Bahraini government to the MEPs at around the same time said: “These complaints, submitted during the period spanning from after his initial arrest until the days after his sentencing by the Higher Criminal Court, do not include any claims of ill-treatment and torture to extract a confession, as is now being falsely claimed by the defendant, his family and legal representative.”
Following Ellwood's parliamentary answer on 19 April this year, the human rights organisation Reprieve wrote to the Foreign Office to say Ellwood was incorrect in saying no torture complaints had been submitted to the ombudsman, and offered to provide the department with copies of these complaints.
In May the Foreign Office minister Baroness Anelay wrote back to Reprieve to say: “We have reconfirmed with the ombudsman’s office in Bahrain that no allegations of mistreatment or torture have been made by or on behalf of Mr Mohamed Ramadan.”
Throughout June and July, human rights groups including Reprieve and the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) continued to provide the Foreign Office with fresh evidence showing that complaints of torture had been made.
On 8 July, Ellwood’s line shifted. In another written answer to parliament, he said: “We appear not to have received any evidence in relation to this case.” A few days later, on 11 July, it shifted again. He wrote to Reprieve saying: “In your letter [of 8 June] you suggest that we stated falsely that there were no allegations of torture against Mohamed Ramadan. We fully acknowledge that complaints were made and my response was given in good faith.”
He sought to reassure the organisation by saying: “[Bahrain’s prison] ombudsman’s office has committed to undertake a full, independent investigation into [Ramadan's treatment].”
A Foreign Office spokesperson said: “We have raised continuing concerns about Mohammed Ramadan with the government of Bahrain. We welcome the ombudsman’s commitment to a full, independent investigation into Mohammed Ramadan’s treatment. The British government consistently and unreservedly condemns torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and it is a priority for us to combat it wherever and whenever it occurs.”
Sayed Ahmed AlWadaei, director of advocacy at BIRD, said: “This is a dangerous line to maintain by the FCO with a man’s life hanging in the balance. The FCO's funding to the ombudsman has created a shield for the Ministry of Interior for it to spread its lies and hide behind torture. Instead of misleading parliament, it is time for the FCO to come clean and stop funding these fundamentally flawed institutions and support a UN investigation into the case of Mohammed Ramadan and Hussain Moosa before it is too late."
Kate Higham, the Middle East regional lead at Reprieve, said: “The ombudsman in Bahrain, which is trained by the UK, has misled the Foreign Office and repeatedly failed to investigate torture allegations – leaving Mohammed Ramadan at risk of execution.
“Even after repeated warnings from Reprieve, ministers still insist the ombudsman can be trusted to investigate Mohammed Ramadan’s torture and forced ‘confession’.
“The FCO must urgently call for an end to the whitewashing – and demand that the Bahraini government permits independent oversight of the new investigation into Mohammed’s ordeal.”