THE UK “has become a problem” for the defence of human rights in the Gulf region, a leading activist claims.

Speaking to The National on a visit to Holyrood yesterday, Maryam al-Khawaja called on the Scottish Government to pressurise the UK Government into ending arms sales to Gulf states and removing support for repressive regimes.

Al-Khawaja, who is living in voluntary exile in Europe to avoid jail in Bahrain, said the UK’s relationship with her country allows King Hamad’s officials to order torture and extra-judicial killings to occur with impunity.

She said: “The UK is one of the main countries that has become a problem when it comes to human rights in the Gulf.

“In the past the UK was very largely silent. Now it is actually proactively working to enable and fund the government.

“It is doing a better job on the Bahrain government than the companies the Bahrain government employs.

“The annual reports the UK produce on Bahrain are like looking at a different country – when the reports are saying Bahrain is on a path to reform and human rights agencies and other governments are saying quite the opposite, we can tell it’s quite a serious problem.

“Scotland can play a role in calling out the UK Government and their double standards. There is a lot more willingness in the Government here to actually talk very honestly about those double standards.”

Last month Human Rights Watch reported the torture of detainees during interrogation in Bahrain, despite UK officials claiming that conditions are improving.

Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond recently inaugurated a new British naval base near the capital Manama and Westminster policy is to support Bahrain in returning to “a stable and reformist state with a good human rights record” following mass pro-democracy protests in 2011.

Al-Khawaja’s father Abdulhadi, the founder of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, was a leading figure in those protests and is currently on hunger strike in prison over his continued detention.

Meanwhile, her sister Zainab is also facing jail for her pro-democracy work and al-Khawaja herself has not returned to Bahrain since a one-year sentence was imposed in absentia last December.

Yesterday, visiting Scotland in support of human rights campaigners Amnesty International, she said she had no expectation that the regime would ease pressure on her family.

However, she said: “We are just one family in hundreds. The amount of families who have a family member in prison or subject to extrajudicial killings – our family is not the exception.

“Before he was imprisoned, my father told me if you are going to become a human rights defender and you do it because you are expecting an outcome, you are doing it for the wrong reasons.

“If you decide to do the work because it is the right thing to do, whether it actually changes things right now becomes secondary to that.

“Every time I find myself in a situation where it keeps getting worse, I remember that.”

Al-Khawaja claims the state has worked to make her appear “dangerous”, but that the reality of its treatment of civilians is the real threat – one that is being met with continued crackdowns on freedoms.

She said: “We are talking about something that is black and white.

“If it was political they could argue it would be a grey area, but when you are talking about human rights issues it is black and white – they are either doing the right thing or not and you have proof.

“It becomes very difficult for them to justify what they are doing.

“Restrictions on human rights defenders are at the forefront of what repressive regimes are doing at the moment. The person who carries a notepad and a pen asking questions is more dangerous than the person carrying a gun.”

Al-Khawaja said there is a global responsibility to challenge regimes in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, which is criticised for its human rights record and the continuing military action in Yemen, which has met little international condemnation.

She said: “The geopolitical importance that Bahrain has is because they have Saudi Arabia as their big brother who is protecting them.

“At the height of the protest movement when we had 50 per cent of the population out on the streets the only reason that didn’t result in a political shift is because Saudi Arabia sent in military troops to help keep the Bahrain regime in power.

“We are not just talking about morality. We are talking about a country that is bombing civilians and creating a humanitarian disaster in Yemen right now.

“This should become a huge international focus. It surprises me we are still at a stage where Saudi Arabia can pretty much get away with anything.”