This week, Stratford Magistrates Court in East London sees the trial of eight political activists, charged for disrupting the set-up of DSEI, one of the world’s biggest arms fairs, when it was in the London Docklands last year.
DSEI, which is organised with the support of the UK government, brings some of the world’s biggest arms companies together with some of the most oppressive regimes in the world. It exists for one purpose: to sell weapons.
Among those in the dock for peaceful protesting is Isa Al-Aali, a 21-year-old Bahraini human rights activist, who came to the UK in 2013 after being beaten, tortured and detained by the Bahraini police for taking part in pro-democracy activism.
Last September, Isa was arrested for his part in peaceful protests outside the Excel Centre during the setup of DSEI. Only a few days later, the regime he was protesting against, the one that had caused him seek asylum in England; leaving his family, his friends and his home, was among those being glad-handed and greeted by arms dealers and civil servants.
Despite thousands of stories like Isa’s, the UK government has gone out of its way to cement its relationship with the Bahrain, a country that the foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, has insisted is “heading in the right direction.”
The oppression has only intensified since the ‘Arab Spring’ in 2011. Since then,Amnesty International has charted five years of “torture, arbitrary detention and a widespread crackdown against peaceful activists and government critics.”
In December 2014, following a long series of high-end diplomatic visits and pleasantries, a Defence Agreement was agreed between the two nations. One outcome is that the UK will open a naval base in Bahrain, the majority of which has been paid for by the Bahraini government.
In the UK, the news was proudly welcomed by cabinet ministers, who boastfully proclaimed it to be “just one example of our growing partnership,” but in Bahrain it was met with angry protests outside the British embassy.
Unfortunately, Bahrain is far from the only dictatorship that can count the UK government among its friends. Since David Cameron took office in May 2010, there have been photo-ops galore for human rights abusers.
During his tenure, Downing Street has hosted high profile visits from General al-Sisi of Egypt, President Xi Jinping of China, and Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan among others. In that time, the UK has licensed arms to 41 of the 46 countries ranked as ‘not free’ by Freedom House. These licenses have been worth over £9.2 billion.
The arms sales and military support is a political boost for those they are sold to, but they can also have deadly consequences. In the last few years UK arms have been linked to repression and human rights abuses in Egypt, Hong Kong, Gaza and beyond.
The impact of British weapons has been felt nowhere more so than in Yemen, where for the last twelve months UK fighter jets and bombs have been central to the Saudi-led bombardment and the humanitarian catastrophe that it has created.
At the time of writing, a fragile ceasefire is in place, but the year long conflict has seen thousands killed, the destruction of vital infrastructure. Millions have been left without access to clean water or electricity, and whole parts of the country have fallen under the control of Al-Qaeda.
Despite the scale of the destruction, the arms sales have continued unabated. Since the bombardment began, the UK has licensed over £2.8 billion worth of arms.
It is this double standard, and these abuses that Isa and the other defendants were campaigning against. There is a rampant hypocrisy at the heart of UK foreign policy, and, as usual, it is civilians that are paying the price.
Whatever the verdict in the courts this week, it is impossible for the government to claim that it respects the human rights of people like Isa while arming and supporting those that have tortured him.
How can it be the case that peaceful protesters and campaigners are arrested for blocking a road, yet regimes that systematically oppress their own citizens and kill others in wars of aggression are given the red carpet treatment and plied with weapons?
Andrew Smith is a spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk. You can follow the DSEI trial at #StopDSEI