Company helping Bahrain prison system reported to information watchdog
A Foreign Office-paid company has been reported to an information watchdog for failing to reveal details of its work in Middle Eastern prisons where torture is allegedly rife.
NI-CO (Northern Ireland Cooperation Overseas), a publicly owned organisation that sends specialists overseas to share UK expertise, has been providing training to officials in the Bahrain prison regime for three years. The work has focused on strengthening prison oversight mechanisms.
The Belfast-based not-for-profit company, which is owned by Stormont business support agency Invest NI, was paid almost £1 million by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office last year to undertake the project in the oil-rich kingdom.
The contract was part of UK foreign aid initiatives to promote human rights compliance abroad.
Amid allegations of widespread mistreatment and torture of inmates in Bahrain, human rights organisation Reprieve had requested details of NI-CO's work with the island nation's prison authorities.
There is no suggestion anyone from NI-CO is complicit in the alleged mistreatment and torture.
Reprieve is currently supporting the case of Mohammed Ramadan - a policeman and father of three on death row in Bahrain who claims he was tortured into confessing to a trumped-up charge to punish him for attending a pro-democracy rally.
While NI-CO answered the majority of questions raised in Freedom of Information requests lodged by Reprieve, it withheld information on its liaisons with officials in Bahraini prisons, including the jail where Mr Ramadan is held.
The company claimed disclosing such information could potentially damage the UK's international relations with Bahrain and hamper NI-CO's own commercial interests.
Reprieve appealed the decision with NI-CO, but the company maintained its position that the public interest in publishing the information did not outweigh the diplomatic and commercial need to keep it under wraps.
Reprieve has now made a formal complaint about NI-CO's stance to the Information Commissioner's Office, which regulates compliance with the Freedom of Information Act.
The organisation accused NI-CO of being "irrationally secretive".
Its submission to the Information Commissioner's Office stated: "It seems contradictory that UK money is being spent to create "accountable institutions" in Bahrain, and yet when Reprieve asks for information about how British staff working towards that objective carried out their work, transparency is refused."
Harriet McCulloch, deputy director of Reprieve's death penalty team, added: "NI-CO needs to come clean over its work with Bahrain's jail guards.
"The company is hiding details of its activities at Bahrain's death row prison, where innocent father of three Mohammed Ramadan faces execution after he was tortured into a false confession.
"NI-CO is owned by Stormont and its work in Bahrain is paid for by the UK Foreign Office, so it must be fully transparent about its dealings with a notorious prison system where torture is systematic."
Last month, Reprieve published a report on NI-CO's work in Bahrain. It called on the company to suspend its operations until the country ratified international laws against torture and allowed independent UN inspections.
A NI-CO spokeswoman said: "I can confirm that NI-CO has responded to all previous Freedom of Information Act requests from Reprieve.
"On several occasions, NI-CO was asked specifically about our work with officials from custodial facilities in Bahrain. We believe that we adhered to all FOI requirements in the detailed responses we provided."