A couple of years ago, I worked on the Amnesty campaign to free Mahdi Abu Dheeb, a trade union activist arrested in Bahrain in 2011 following the Arab Spring uprising for organising a strike. Under arrest, he was allegedly tortured by the regime and held in solitary confinement which in itself constitutes a form of torture.
As part of the campaign, I interviewed his young daughter Maryam. She remains one of the bravest and strongest women I’ve ever had the privilege to speak to. Just out of her teens when I spoke to her, she told me in detail about the horrors her family had endured since her father’s arrest. She spoke eloquently about the kindness and generosity of her father. She told me about how she learnt of his arrest through Twitter – that he had been thrown from a second-floor window. For weeks the family didn’t know where Mahdi had gone – it was a month before they learnt he was still alive. It was another month before they saw him again – on trial for inciting hatred against the regime.
Maryam told me how her father looked ill in the courtroom and walked as if in intense pain. He wrote to her and her family to allege beatings, broken ribs and being hit with a hose. Arrested, allegedly tortured, sentenced for years in prison – all for calling a strike. All for standing up for teachers’ rights.
Today I saw on Twitter that Theresa May is in Bahrain attempting to ‘turbo-charge’ the UK’s relationship with Gulf States as we move out of the EU and need to find trading partners elsewhere.
Brexit brings us to strange bedfellows, it seems.
When we trade with the EU, we know that a certain standard of human rights and ethics will be upheld by our neighbour states, right? Okay: so it’s not guaranteed. There are EU states that have some dodgy records and are enacting some unpleasant policies – just look at Hungary. But, as a general rule, when a country applies to join the EU there’s an expectation on upholding human rights. There’s a degree of ambition. A promise of shared values.
Outside of the EU, and we’re going to have to start making trade deals with more controversial powers. On her trip to the Gulf, May be meet with dictators who execute people for sorcery and who flog men for blogposts. She’s in Bahrain where, as we’ve seen above, the post-Arab Spring crackdown was one of the most brutal in the region. She’s meeting leaders of countries where homosexuality is illegal and where thousands of migrant workers have died building footballing vanity projects.
It begs the question – how far are we prepared to go? The answer leaves a foul taste in my mouth. Are we willing as a country to give up our commitment to human rights and increase deals with the regime that beat up and disappeared Maryam’s father? Are we going to flaunt our commitment to freedom of speech and set up agreements with states that brutally suppress the written word? Are we going to congratulate ourselves on our equality legislation while signing contracts with nations where women are legally second-class; where LGBT communities are criminalised?
Is this the face of Brexit? More dinners with despots? Tea with tyrants?
None of this is new, of course, but it feels more pressing with the new world order Brexit is confronting us with.
After Castro died, I ended up breaking my “don’t watch political TV you’ll just get cross” rule and caught a bit of Marr. The debate was raging about the appropriate response to his death was. One of the panellists brought up that when ‘the dictator in Saudi Arabia died last year, the flag was flown at half mast at Buckingham Palace.’
‘You mean the King,’ Marr shot back.
Now, I’m not here to defend Castro’s human rights record. I once half-jokingly chatted about marrying a gay guy from the country after he fled the state-sponsored homophobia.
I’m just here to point out that changing the name of dictators, autocrats and leaders of repressive regimes to ‘King’ doesn’t make a difference to someone like Maryam. It doesn’t make the beatings allegedly afflicted upon her father any less painful.
I’d like May to use her time in Bahrain to meet Maryam, and the women like her who searched desperately for their relatives in the post Arab-Spring crackdown. I’d like her to meet the women who have refused to be silenced on the human rights violations committed in their countries. I’d like May to meet these women, and then try to justify ‘turbo-charged’ trade agreements with the men who call themselves Kings, rather than the names they deserve.