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Middle East

Britain probes validity of immunity for Bahraini prince accused of torture

As a court allows a Bahraini refugee to challenge Prince Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa's immunity from prosecution, DW asks if the arm of British law is long enough to prevent torture in the tiny Gulf kingdom.

It is not often that a young royal is named in connection with torture allegations, but it clearly can happen. Last week a court in London named Bahraini Prince Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa as the man at the center of a case brought by a national of the Gulf island state. Known simply as FF, the claimant is seeking to challenge a 2012 Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) ruling under which the prince enjoys immunity from prosecution.

Although a torture survivor himself, FF did not suffer abuse at the hands of the man he is rising against. He is, his lawyer Sue Willman told DW, simply seeking justice.

"He is a Bahraini activist who came to the UK and was granted refugee status," Willman said. "He sees the prince, who is known to have these allegations made against him, regularly visiting the UK, meeting the royal family and feels it is wrong."

So he took action. In 2012 he instructed a firm of London lawyers to write to the CPS asking for Prince Nasser to be arrested whilst on a vist to the UK. The forthcoming reply was that the royal had state immunity and could therefore neither be arrested nor prosecuted. FF subsequently applied for a judicial review, and Prince Nasser has since been served with court papers.

In response, the Bahraini government issued a statement in which it "refutes in the strongest possible terms the factual basis for the underlying allegations which it maintains are unfounded, false and politically motivated."

Prince Nasser bin Hamad al-Khalifa

Prince Nasser is a frequent visitor to the UK, and regularly attends equestrian events there

The case is still at a very early stage, with the final hearing now set for October of this year, but whatever the outcome Willman would like to see it serve a broader purpose. "I hope it sheds some light on the situation in Bahrain," she said, adding that it could force foreign governments, institutions and companies to consider whether they want to do business with a regime which is implicated in a torture scandal.

Sayed Yousif Almuhafdah of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights applauds the legal action which he says sends a strong message to anyone committing torture. "It shows that they cannot get away from their crimes, even if they have the courts in their own countries in their pockets."

He believes FF's decision to take his case to a judiciary system outside his home country was a shrewd move that has the potential to damage the carefully preened international image of the ruling family.

"Hard-earned reputation for torture"

But Nick McGeehan, Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch, thinks it will take more than a bout of bad publicity to shatter Bahrain's "hard-earned reputation for torture," which dates back to a major uprising in the 1990s.

He says the only way to put an end to the systematic practice of abuse that became the focus of international attention in 2011 after the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) found five people had died as a result of torture, is via a political solution. And there, somewhat ironically, given the case in hand, he cites London as a major stumbling block.

Protesters in Bahrain

Pro-democracy protests have been ongoing in Bahrain since 2011, and have led to thousands of arrests and allegations of torture

"In terms of international allies, the main obstacle is the British government, which continues to support the Bahrainis and to claim there is a process of political, judicial and security sector reform going on, despite manifest evidence to the contrary."

McGeehan goes even further, suggesting that there is possibly nothing the Bahraini ruling family can do to move David Cameron's London to respond to Manama's poor human rights record with a sharper tongue and tighter hand. Unless, he ventures, Washington officially accepts what he describes as the "myth" of the Bahraini reform narrative.

"If that happens, then perhaps British isolation on the issue would lead to them backing down and offering some level of criticism, but I’m not convinced that one case in and of itself can achieve that."

Too few prosecutions

Yet at the weekend, Britain's Prince Andrew, who nurtures good relations with the ruling family in Manama, surprisingly withdrew from opening the "This is Bahrain!" conference in London.

Whether his decision was motivated by the week's events, or was in fact a case of being double booked, as a royal official reportedly told the Telegraph newspaper, it is indicative of ripples, if not waves.

The fact remains, it is extremely unusual for a regular citizen to try and take a member of a Gulf royal family to court. Indeed Kevin Laue, legal advisor at REDRESS, a London-based organization that helps torture survivors seek justice and reparation told DW that it is rare for any alleged torturer to face prosecution.

"There has only been one instance in the past 20 years in the UK and that was a warlord from Aghanistan who was prosecuted, convicted and sentenced," he said, adding "this case is even rarer."

Laue laments the fact that other alleged torturers have not been taken to court in countries other than those where they are said to have committed their crimes, because such trials make it clear that torture is not acceptable to any civilized society.

As far as he is concerned, the UK is perfectly well equipped to deal with FF's legal action, but lacks the political will to deal with allegations of torture relating to its allies.

Sayed Yousif Almuhafdah

Sayed Yousif Almuhafdah of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights says the legal action sends a strong message

"Bahrain is a close friend of the UK, and in cases where victims come to try and get some sort of relief from the Brtisih courts, it is not the courts that are the problem, but the government which will try and instruct its own lawyers to raise as many defenses to the case as they can find."

That, he says, is fair enough in a legal fight, but he would like to see greater resources put into investigating and prosecuting cases such as the one against Prince Nasser.

"Britain says it is not a safe haven for people accused of such crimes," he said. "But the reality is that prosecutions are very rare."

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