Tagged: FOIA

Secrecy, yellow uniforms, and the patronizing FCO

To quote from Bahrain Watch’s own page.

On Tuesday 10th March 2015, the Information Rights Tribunal in London is considering whether to order the Foreign Office to reveal secret communications between Foreign Office officials which are nearly 40 years old. In June 2013, Marc Jones, a Durham university PhD student and member of the NGO, Bahrain Watch made a Freedom of Information Request to the FCO asking for a secret file entitled “Bahrain: Internal Political situation 1977”. The FCO refused to disclose the full file arguing to reveal the information would damage international relations. He complained to the Information Commissioner who rejected his complaint on the basis that prejudice would be caused to the UK’s relations with Bahrain if it was made public. See the outline of the case here.

A Positive Verdict: We were not optimistic of a win. In fact, we were alerted to the fact that Tribunals often side with the government. However, when the verdict came, the judge said that it would be reserved for a later date. Essentially, this meant that they could not reach a decision on the day. For us, this was good, and highlighted that the FCO’s case was not watertight, and that the information they were hiding may actually be in the public interest to know. In other words, the information is not trivial.

A Peculiar Trial. The Trial did not begin as anticipated. Although we were expecting to give evidence first, the FCO were quite insistent that Edward Oakden, a senior diplomat and witness, should go first. This was because he had appointments in the evening. Naturally, I had cancelled my appointments because we were told the court case would last all day – a sensible and not unreasonable course of action. Oakden’s evidence was brief, and mostly consisted him of evading questions by saying ‘I shall refer to that in the secret portion of the trial’. (I should perhaps add that the FCO and the judges had a private session in which the redacted contents could be revealed – of course neither we nor the public were entitled to attend). After the secret session the FCO and their barrister were quite clear on one thing, that whatever was in the document would not address my general and specific concerns about British complicity in Human Rights abuses in Bahrain, nor would it shed light on Henderson’s actions in Kenya’. However, they also stressed that release of the information would DEFINITELY damage the relationship between Britain and Bahrain.

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When our turn to give evidence came,  we focused essentially on why the information would not be revelatory. I.e. we already know so much of the egregious acts committed by the British and the Al Khalifa that new information would not be significantly new. We were careful to stress that the current Prime Minister and King were implicated in illegal activities during 1977, including the deporting of Shia to Iran. So as Rodney Trotter once said, you’d “have to get done for chicken molesting to bring a slur on this family’s name”.   We also emphasised that complicity was a broad term, and could include a wide variety of things (The FCO did not really specify in what manner they meant it). We also highlighted that the FCO’s argument about the piece not containing information about British complicity did not speak of Al Khalifa or security forces’ role in HR abuses. Either way, given the continuous human rights abuses in Bahrain, and the fact 17 British officers were in the Bahrain police at the time, and that both the intelligence and general divisions of policing were led by British men, we argued that any information about the state of the security forces was in the public interest as it is was almost always the security services engaged in human rights abuses. 

Their barrister’s cross-examination of our evidence seemed somewhat lackluster. It centered on a number of superficial arguments. The most salient one seemed to be saying that I was in no position to comment on how a revelation would harm relations between Bahrain and Britain as I was not, nor ever had been, a diplomat. I did, of course, remind them that I had spent a good part of the past few years studying diplomatic cables. Our legal team also stressed that the threshold for information that counts as warranting a diplomatic response is so low that it made the process somewhat unfair. For example, if releasing the information forced the British to explain to the Bahrainis why they had done this – this counts as a diplomatic response. Importantly, the FCO admitted that disclosing the information would not harm the new base deal. Whatever happened, the FCO’s caginess simply has increased anticipation about what the withheld information could contain.

What could the information be?

Well, despite their barrister’s protestations that I was simply guessing the contents of the cable, I reminded him that at least it was an educated guess. I also reminded him that when they were refusing to give us any inkling of what the documents contained, which they ought to have done. However, I think the biggest clue as to what the information might be was alluded to by one of the judges. I was asked when the following paragraph, was released to the public:

Selman bin Hamad has all the worst qualities of the Al Khalifa family. He is totally uneducated, vain, lazy, and inclined to oppress and tyrannize over anyone who is powerless to resist. Selman is absolutely unfit to succeed is father as ruler.

The comment, which was made in 1923 by a British official, was probably released because Selman bin Hamad is dead. But why would the judge be so concerned about when it was released, especially after she had seen the censored document in the private hearing? The most logical explanation is that contains information that was probably critical of a member of the Ruling Family who is still alive. This theory is confirmed by the bits of information which you can actually read from the heavily redacted document. In particular the following:

What surprised me in our conversation was the gloomy view he took of the ability of the Al Khalifa to survive. [Redacted]. They were moving into lucrative areas of business and squeezing out established merchants.

If this is the case, then surely the FCO could have said that the redacted information contains information critical of certain individuals? However, they did not reveal a thing. Instead, their barrister asked me whether the information would be in the public interest if it, for example, it was about the police having ‘yellow uniforms’. Obviously this is absurd, as they would not be fighting so hard to keep it secret if it was about yellow uniforms…

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A final note…

If there’s ever a misnomer, it’s the ‘Freedom of Information Act’ . I say so because if you want to get anything, potentially of value to the public, it’s going to cost you – both in terms of money and time. What happened on Tuesday was the culmination of months of work, and considerable legal cost. This bureaucratic control  is essentially a process of attrition, a series of obstacles designed to discourage people from breaching the government’s asymmetry of information. Indeed, the FCO have denied at least two thirds of the information requests I have sent them the earliest being from 1956 (a year when British troops were used to help put down a populist uprising in Bahrain). For those who want more information on the case, you can read my witness statement > 819867 Witness statement of Appellant & exhibit sheet 28 11 14 (4). Oakden’s heavily redacted statement can be read here> 885992 01 Response of FCO 13 02 15 (pages 1.48 to 1.51)_ 05 Witness statement of Edward Oakden (unsigned undated) 13 02 15 (page… . To see the heavily redacted version of the contested document, go here >

Other

Independent article on the case

Article in Bahrain Al Youm [Arabic]

Short interview [Arabic]

Britain stays quiet on “Butcher of Bahrain”

For those of you have been following the case, I recently asked the Information Commission to review the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s (FCO) decision to withhold a conversation that took place in between Ian Henderson and David Tatham, an employee of the FCO. Disappointingly, the Commissioner has decided that the information is exempt from disclosure based on the fact the balance of ‘public interest’ lies in maintaining the exemption. Given that the late Ian Henderson (sometimes called the Butcher of Bahrain) has been accused of torture, and was involved in the suppression of the Mau Mau insurgency in Kenya, it is very disappointing that the Commissioner has made this decision. However, recent evidence has tended to point that Ian Henderson might have tried to temper the excesses of the Al Khalifa regime, a particularly interesting insight given today’s announcement that the King’s Son, Prince Nasser, could be prosecuted for torture if he comes to Britain.

Interestingly, “The FCO argued that disclosing the redacted information would (rather than simply being likely to) damage its relations with Bahrain.” In summary, the FCO uses Bahrain’s announced reform plan (which has been critiqued for its complete lack of substance) as an excuse for not harming Britain’s relationship with Bahrain. Essentially, both government are avoiding embarrassment by using potential human rights developments in the country as an incentive. The review makes it sound like Bahraini citizens will be punished if the FCO decide to embarrass themselves and the Bahraini government. Britain are also concerned that such a disclosure might harm Britain’s defense interests in Bahrain.

Although the IC imply that the withheld documents would not address the concerns I had about Henderson, I am curious as to why such information ‘would’ (and not ‘could’) damage Britain’s relationship with Bahrain. To read the full exchange with the FCO, go here. To read the full response by the Information Commission, go here> FS50538474 (1).

Either way, the next stop forward is to try and take this to the First-Tier Tribunal. As with all litigious repression, this would almost certainly involve a cost. Stay tuned for updates.