Bahrain – Siding with the Rulers

An edited extract from Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World

by Mark Curtis

Bahrain has provided a good test case for how seriously New Labour under Blair would address human rights abuses committed by traditional British allies. And whether it would be prepared to support opposition groups calling for greater political participation in the political system. Would Labour be any different or continue business as usual?

A month after Labour came to power – in June 1997 – Human Rights Watch published a report on Bahrain entitled “Routine abuse, routine denial”. It noted that human rights abuses in Bahrain were wide-ranging, especially in the denial of fundamental political rights and civil liberties such as freedom of expression and association. There was a particular responsibility on Britain to take a lead since “many abusive practices derive from the policies pursued by Great Britain prior to independence in 1971.”

Under the Conservative government, Britain’s approach to these abuses had been similar to the US, Human Rights Watch noted: London only expressed concern “in very general terms” about human rights practices and raised the issue only on a confidential basis. But this approach “can no longer be regarded as adequate or sufficient”. It called on the newly elected British government to:

“make clear to the government of Bahrain, both publicly and privately, that persistent and recurrent human rights violations will affect negatively the depth and quality of relations with the United Kingdom, including military and security relations”.

The Blair government’s reaction was immediately clear. A month following the report, Foreign Office minister Derek Fatchett expressed support for the Bahraini regime’s “shura” system of consultative councils appointed by the Emir. Fatchett described this system as a “respected and accepted” form of constitution and that the “Bahraini shura council is not perfect but we should not write it off”.

Britain rejected Human Rights Watch’s suggestion of making clear that military relations would suffer as a result of human rights violations. Instead, London conducted another round of military talks with Bahrain in November 1997, addressing “issues of mutual defence interest and bilateral defence relations”.

When asked in a parliamentary question the extent to which the government believed that human rights were violated in Bahrain, Fatchett simply replied: “we take seriously any abuse of human rights wherever it might occur” and said he regularly raised human rights with Bahraini ministers. This signalled a continuing policy of supposed private diplomacy that Human Rights Watch had labelled not “adequate or sufficient”.

The British government’s support for the shura system is in direct defiance of liberal and Islamic groups in Bahrain demanding greater political liberalisation. Since 1994, there has been a growing popular movement to press the regime to become more open, to allow greater political participation and to restore the constitution suspended in 1975. The constitution had been established in 1973 and consisted of a national assembly with 30 elected members and 15 nominated government ministers. Major demonstrations have occurred together with mass petitions. In October 1994, 25,000 prominent people had signed a petition to the Emir calling for political liberalisation, including the greater involvement of women in the political process and the need to address the country’s economic problems, like unemployment and inflation. The Bahraini people were not asking for the Earth, calling neither for the overthrow of the emir or even for full democracy.

The response of the Bahraini regime after 1994 was to crack down hard on all demonstrations by indiscriminate arrests and arbitrary detention of several thousand people, by abuse and torture of prisoners, by deporting leaders and by tightening restrictions on all forms of meetings and public expression. Reserve Bahraini military forces were called up and even columns of special Saudi National Guards – also trained by Britain – crossed into Bahrain in support of the authorities.

By May 1998, the Financial Times could still report that the Bahraini government “continues to crack down on the slightest sign of dissent”. It noted that five women had been given a three month suspended jail sentence for nothing more than “chanting slogans against the existing political system”. Thousands of people had been jailed.

Major changes have occurred in 2001 and 2002, however, under the new Emir – Hamad Al Khalifa – who took over on his father’s death in 1999. In February 2001, all political prisoners were pardoned and the state security law and state security court, which severely suppressed basic freedoms, were abolished. The following February, the kingdom of Bahrain was proclaimed, with the Emir declaring himself king. Municipal elections were held in May 2002 and parliamentary elections in October 2002. Most importantly, the king announced the restoration of parliament, with the creation of a lower house – consisting of 40 elected members – and an upper house – a shura or consultative council, of 40 members appointed by the king.

These are improvements for Bahrainis but major brakes on democratic freedoms remain. Most important is the fact that the new parliament is less powerful than the old one suspended in 1975. The appointed upper house is far more powerful than the elected chamber, meaning the King retains overall control. According to the Bahrain Freedom Movement (BFM), a major opposition group based in London:

“Many Bahrainis thought they were going back to the 1973 constitution, with a single legislative chamber boasting wide powers. Instead the king promulgated a new constitution creating an appointed upper house that can effectively block anything the elected parliament does”.

The BFM also notes that “the government is aiming for a namesake parliament with occasional ritual of elections” and that “real and effective state power is vested in the traditional monarchy”. Public rallies have also been prohibited while access to opposition internet sites have been blocked.

Britain has chosen to side very firmly with the rulers, both before and after the (limited) liberalisation of the last two years. It has failed to use, as Human Rights Watch was urging, its close military and political ties with the Bahrain regime to publicly press it to end abuses. It has also failed to express any (that I can find) public support for the calls of the popular protest movement. Rather, it appears to have simply seized on the king’s recent initiatives. Foreign Office minister Mike O’Brien has expressed Britain’s welcome for “progress towards constitutional monarchy and a democratic state”, even saying:

“Bahrain is in many ways providing a lead to show that it is possible to create a more democratic state in the Middle East that can participate in the international community with its head held high”.

Britain has chosen to continue to arm and train the regime. It exports arms to “all units of the Bahraini security forces, including the Bahrain Defence Force and the Bahrain National Guard, whose forces have received some training from the Ministry of Defence”. That training is “tailored to Bahrain’s requirements”, a parliamentary committee notes, while the MoD describes Bahrain as “a key regional ally of the UK”.

“The relationship between Britain and Bahrain is special”, Trade minister Baroness Symons told a “Doing business in Bahrain” seminar, before praising the regime for the “wise way in which Bahrain has used its oil wealth”.

British policy has changed hardly a jot since 1965 and 1966 when Britain put down demonstrations against the regime. The Economist correctly noted at the time that “the British have no sympathy with the notion of political organisations in Bahrain”. London’s priorities change little.

London bears even greater responsibility for repression in Bahrain, however. Bahrain’s internal security services are riddled with Britons, with around a dozen in mainly senior roles. It is only the most prominent, Ian Henderson, who has received some (minimal) media coverage. Henderson, a British national and a former colonial official in Kenya, had been Director General of the Public Security Directorate, the Criminal Investigations Directorate (CID) and the State Security Directorate (SSD). Henderson served in these internal security roles from 1966 until 1998, after which he served as an adviser to the interior ministry until July 2000.

With reputed direct access to the Emir and the prime minister, opposition groups have accused Henderson of “masterminding a ruthless campaign of repression”. Henderson’s CID and SSD “have for many years been responsible for gross human rights violations”, especially torture under interrogation, according to Amnesty International. Methods at the security service HQ included pulling off fingernails, using dogs to attack prisoners and sexual assault. One prisoner said that “they trussed me up like a chicken for fifteen minutes. They take you and bend you double and handcuff you. They insert a wooden rod and they suspend you”.

A Channel 4 news story suggested that Henderson had been personally involved in torture sessions. One pro-democracy activist, Hashem Redha, said that Henderson “tortured me one time. He kicked me and shook me two times. He said ‘if you like to be hit, we can hit you more than that'”. Another torture victim now in exile claims that Henderson repeatedly visited him while he was a prisoner in the 1980s. He says that:

“They hit me with cables all over my body. They put a rope on my legs and hung me, and put cloth in my mouth so I couldn’t cry out. A British man came in and advised me to cooperate. I thought that everything would stop because he was British. I told him they were torturing me, but he just sat and watched what they were doing. He ordered the torture”.

His torturers later told him the Briton was Henderson.

The Labour government has deliberately allowed Henderson – whom George Galloway MP called “Britain’s Klaus Barbie” – to escape justice. Under a 1998 law, the government can arrest in Britain anyone involved in torture anywhere in the world. Henderson was allowed, however, to take a new year holiday at his home in Devon in December 1999.

As Amnesty International has said:

“The UK government, under international law, has an obligation to conduct an enquiry into Henderson’s role in the use of torture in Bahrain. A superior who knew or who should have known subordinates were committing human rights violations and took no steps to ensure punishment of those responsible and stop the abuse, is criminally responsible. Also under international law torture is a crime against humanity when committed on a widespread or systematic basis”.

After a joint Independent/Channel 4 investigation, then Home Secretary Jack Straw announced that an investigation had begun into Henderson by the Metropolitan police, who were in receipt of papers alleging torture. At the time of writing, the case is pending. The history of Conservative and Labour governments acquiescence in repression presided over by Britons for nearly four decades provides little optimism that justice will really be sought.