The king of Bahrain is expected to attend the Royal Windsor horse show on Sunday after a personal invitation from the Queen, prompting anger from campaigners who claim the UK is “sportswashing” what they say is an increasingly repressive regime.
King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa has been invited as a guest of the Queen, demonstrating a warmth of official ties despite the Middle Eastern state’s outlawing of political opposition, and human rights violations including torture.
Ahead of the UK’s largest outdoor horse show, King Hamad offered congratulations to Vladimir Putin on Russia’s Victory Day, which was held last week.
The Queen is expected to attend the horse show on Sunday to watch the platinum jubilee celebration in her honour. However, she will have to brave a protest, organised by the Campaign Against Arms Trade, that aims to highlight the event’s “sportswashing of human rights abuses in Bahrain”.
Among those attending the protest are exiled activist Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, whose Bahraini citizenship was revoked after he previously protested against the king of Bahrain at the Windsor horse show and who is, in effect, stateless as a result.
Alwadaei, director of the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, said: “While the people of Bahrain continue to live under the brutal repression of the Al Khalifa dictatorship, with prisons full of peaceful dissidents, once again the red carpet is being rolled out for King Hamad in the UK. His invitation to the Royal Windsor horse show is morally bankrupt and sends a clear signal that the UK is a safe haven for dictators and human rights abusers.”
On Friday an open letter was sent to the Queen by five MPs, including former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and two peers, warning that welcoming the king was “a huge error of judgment and sends a devastating message to the victims of this brutal rule”.
A separate letter, signed by international rights groups, was sent to sponsors of the horse show, including Land Rover and Rolex, raising concerns over what it described as a “textbook example of sportswashing”.
Jeed Basyouni, who leads Reprieve’s Middle East team, said: “The UK welcomes King Hamad and agrees not to mention the people tortured into making false confessions by his security services.
“And, each year, Bahrain’s rulers return home with the comforting thought that no matter how much pain they inflict on their people, they will still be feted in England.”
The invitation to the king comes after the organisers of the Windsor event agreed to adopt a human rights policy following a complaint that the show is being exploited by the Bahrain royal family to distract from rights abuses.
The death of Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, president of the UAE, on Friday may, however, persuade the king to fly back to the Gulf at short notice.
Not only will the Gulf state’s king be present at Windsor but Bahrain’s Prince Nasser has also confirmed he will be attending.
In 2014 the high court in London ruled that Prince Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa was not immune from prosecution over torture claims, allegations the Bahraini government categorically denied.
Since the failed 2011 uprising, aimed at removing the ruling monarchy, Bahrain has been engaged in the repression of its Shia majority. Human rights groups claim the regime is using mass terrorism trials and the removal of citizenship to crack down on peaceful activists.
Amnesty International’s latest assessment of Bahrain says that its government continued to commit serious human rights violations, “including torture and other ill-treatment as well as suppression of freedom of expression and assembly. Official investigations of ill-treatment resulted in impunity for perpetrators.”