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Bahrain: Activist held on return to UK after addressing UN on human rights

Sayed Alwadaei says Border Force officers detained him for over two hours at Gatwick Airport without explaining why
Sayed Alwadaei (right) and other Bahraini human rights defenders visit US Ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council, Michele Taylor, in Geneva on Thursday (X/@USAmbHRC)

A prominent Bahraini activist says he was held at Gatwick Airport on Friday as he returned to the UK from addressing the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva about Bahrain’s human rights abuses.

Sayed Alwadaei, director of advocacy at the UK-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, told Middle East Eye that UK Border Force officials stopped him after he landed, but did not tell him why he was being held.

Instead, they gave him a document, seen by MEE, which said he is “an individual who may be liable to arrest by a constable or subject to a warrant for arrest”. Alwadaei said he was released after two-and-a-half hours.

MEE asked the Home Office why Alwadaei was held. A Home Office spokesperson said: “Border Force’s number one priority is to maintain a secure border, which includes verifying that those wishing to enter the UK have the right to do so.”

Alwadaei said he was also held last month at a UK airport when he arrived from South Africa, but was unclear what triggered that, or whether Friday's incident is connected. 

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"The fact that you have no explanation, nothing, it just keeps your mind floating around," he said on Friday. "You're not sure - is it an Interpol red notice? What is it?"

Speaking after he was released, Alwadaei told MEE he is more concerned about a group of female Bahraini human rights defenders who were on their way back to Bahrain from Geneva on Friday after participating in the council's session.

Their visit included a meeting on Thursday with Michele Taylor, US Ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council.

"I’m more worried, to be honest, about the safety of those who came to Geneva to tell their story and also to deliver their message on behalf of hundreds of political prisoners in Bahrain," he said. "What if they are stopped and questioned?"

One of the women in Geneva was Ebtisam al-Saegh, who was detained in March 2017 for seven hours at Bahrain International Airport and interrogated on her return from the UN Human Rights Council, where she spoke about violations.

'Urgent questions'

Maya Foa, joint executive director of Reprieve, called Alwadaei a "courageous human rights defender and torture survivor" who has been granted asylum by the UK because of violence and persecution by Bahraini authorities.

"Sayed’s family have suffered reprisals in Bahrain for his work exposing torture and forced confessions leading to death sentences - and the role played by institutions funded by the UK in whitewashing this abuse," Foa said.

'Sayed’s family have suffered reprisals in Bahrain for his work exposing torture and forced confessions leading to death sentences'

Maya Foa, Reprieve

"Under these circumstances, Sayed’s detention today is clearly extremely alarming for Sayed and his family."

She said the incident raises "urgent questions" for the UK government, particularly given the removal of Bahrain from the list of human rights priority countries this year, for the first time since 2015.

MPs and rights groups have criticised the decision to drop the kingdom from the list, days after Bahrain pledged to invest £1bn in Britain. 

"Ministers must urgently confirm what representations [the UK government] has received from the government of Bahrain around Sayed’s citizenship and immigration status, and assure the public that its actions are in no way influenced by pressure from the Bahraini authorities," Foa said.

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