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Bahrain prison officials made visits to crisis-hit Maghaberry jail

Prison officials from Bahrain have visited Maghaberry Prison in Co Antrim. Picture by Mal McCann

BRITAIN'S Foreign Office has been sending prison directors from controversial Gulf island state Bahrain to visit crisis-hit Maghaberry jail.

Diplomats believe that “the situation here in Northern Ireland mirrors closely with that in Bahrain”, according to internal emails seen by The Irish News.

A freedom of information request revealed that the trips were part of a multi-million aid package to improve the Kingdom of Bahrain's notorious justice system.

The Arab Spring in 2011 saw pro-democracy activists jailed, with an official report finding that many were tortured.

Maghaberry is a controversial jail to show foreign regimes.

The Chief Inspector of Prisons in England and Wales said last year it was the "most dangerous prison" he had ever visited and that Charles Dickens could write about it "without batting an eyelid".

However, high-level delegations from Bahrain have visited the high-security jail twice in the last 12 months, both before and after the damning inspection.

Maghaberry houses around 50 dissident republican inmates and an agenda for one visit talked about security arrangements for the "separated prisoners".

Despite this, the Foreign Office denies discussing paramilitary prisoners with Bahrain.

Human Rights Watch has urged the UK government to “suspend funding, support and training for security service reform” until Bahrain allows access to the UN special rapporteur on torture.

The aid project is subcontracted to Northern Ireland Co-operation Overseas (NI-CO), a semi-private company.

However, a message from NI-CO to Stormont's justice department said that “the prisons project in Bahrain continues to gather speed and our working relationships are beginning to flourish”.

Prison officers were said to be “very cordial, empathetic and open in all their discussions” with their guests from Bahrain, who included three prison directors and operational staff led by a major.

“The feedback from our Bahraini colleagues was very positive and the group stated that your team made them feel very welcome,” NI-CO told Maghaberry's governor after a three-day visit.

“They have certainly gained a lot of information and ideas that they can take back to their own country to put into practice.”

The documents even reveal that British diplomats see similarities between Bahrain and Northern Ireland

An email from NI-CO said: “One of the proposals we have discussed with the UK Embassy was the real success of the study visits to Northern Ireland. It was felt that the situation here in NI mirrors closely with that in Bahrain.”

Bahrain has been ruled by an unelected monarchy since independence from Britain in 1971 and been accused in the past of running a regime of torture.

Since the Arab Spring the gulf monarchy has been highly paranoid of dissent, with prominent human rights activist Zainab al-Khawaja detained since March for tearing up pictures of the king.

However, the Foreign Office and NI-CO stood by their comparison, saying that: “As Bahrainis have publicly said, lessons can be learnt from the way in which Northern Ireland has dealt with turbulence”.

Dissident republican prisoners in Maghaberry claim they saw Bahraini officials visit their wing in May 2015.

“It speaks volumes that the Kingdom of Bahrain today seeks counsel from the Maghaberry jail administration on how best to treat political prisoners,” they said in a statement via the Irish Republican Prisoners Welfare Association.

Although the Foreign Office denies discussing the treatment of paramilitary prisoners with Bahrain, a NI-CO agenda for one Bahraini visit to Maghaberry included “security arrangements for separated prisoners and zoning potential for prison by areas”.

The agenda document also included “control and restraint training”, “incident management” and drug detection, which are issues the jail has faced criticism over.

Tensions remain high in Maghaberry jail, with dissident republicans murdering prison officer Adrian Ismay in a bomb attack in east Belfast in March.

The Prison Service confirmed that it “facilitated visits following a request from NI-CO".

"We have a policy of openness and welcome guests to observe our practices for delivering safe, secure prisons with rehabilitation at its core.”

The Foreign Office and NI-CO also said it aimed “to share best practice, to assist in improving reform and rehabilitation services in the Kingdom of Bahrain”.

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