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.
On 1st July 2013, the Bahrain Third Higher Criminal Court acquitted Mubarak bin Huwail, a Bahraini police officer accused of torturing six medics. One of his alleged victims and former head of Bahrain Nursing Society, Rula al-Saffar, describes how Huwail tortured her and the other medics.
“The principal investigator, Maj Mubarak bin Huwail, tortured us. He blindfolded and handcuffed us during the interrogation. He wrote whatever he wanted to write and then took our signatures on the false statements by beating us. We were humiliated, intimidated and degraded.”
Shortly after his acquittal, a photo was circulated that showed the Prime Minister meeting with Huwail at a majlis (many of the others present seem to be Saudis). Then, on 7th July, someone posted a video of the meeting on Youtube. Mubarak is the guy sitting to the right of the Prime Minister (Not Redbeard, the other one). Below are some of the more important comments (Many thanks @mariamisme for helping with the translation)
(0.24) PM to one of the guys – هالقوانين محد يطبقها عليكم ، إلا علاقتنا وياكم ، وإلي يطبق عليكم يطبق علينا إحنا. إحنا جسد واحد
Translation: These laws cannot be applied to you. No one can touch this bond. Whoever applies these laws against you is applying them against us. We are one body.
(2.28) – PM to Mubarak bin Huwail – نا ياي أشكركم يا مبارك على صبرك وعلى عملك الطيب والإنسان مثل ماتقول ينطرح عمله وعملكم كلكم يا هالعايلة هو سبب سمعتكم إلى مافي أحسن منها ومايبقى عند الإنسان في حياته وعقب ما الله يختاره إلا سمعته وسمعتكم كبيرة وعايلتكم كبيرة وإحنا أهلكم
Translation: I am here to thank you, Mubarak, for your patience and good work. A human as they say is judged by his work, and your work as a family is the reason for your reputation which is exemplary. A human is left with nothing but his reputation in life and death, and yours is a great one as a family. We are one family.
Although Mubarak bin Huwail was acquitted, one should not see this as a reflection of his guilt or innocence. So far, no officers have been found guilty of torture – hardly surprising given most regimes will protect their legal control agents from accountability when they are defending the social order. However, the most shocking thing about this video is not that the PM is thanking a man accused of torture, but rather his attitude towards the law. The fact he seems to be telling Redbeard, Mubarak and co that they are above the law is truly outrageous, especially when we consider how in March 2013 the Prime Minister stated, ‘ all citizens are equal before the law’. On the contrary, it is clear that loyalty to the Al Khalifas is a more important factor in determining one’s innocence or guilt. Never was there a more appropriate use of Orwell’s old addage – “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”.
Today a video was leaked that shows a young man called Hussain Jamil Jaffar Ali Marhoon confessing to the police that he was told by clerics Isa Qassim and Ali Salman to go and kill the police (see bottom of blog for video – for English subtitles click captions on YouTube). He also said that he was paid 10BD ($26) a day to do this. In a very bullying tone, the policeman asks a number of questions, with Husain looking more and more uncomfortable with each one. Towards the end of the questioning, the officer asks Husain to confirm that he will tell this same story to the judge, and also asks him, very unsympathetically, to confirm that none of the security forces harmed him. All the while Hussain is topless, looking very distressed with what looks like a cut on his left shoulder.
The Ministry of the Interior announced an investigation into the case on Twitter. An hour later, they said they had suspended the suspects. Presumably they were more angry at this breach of security and the policeman leaking the video than they were at the humiliating treatment of the victim.
Although Husain is topless, and clearly looking distressed, it is, of course, hard to determine what actually happened to him. Unfortunately, the lack of proof could work in the government’s favour, for the inability to prove that the confession was extracted under duress or intimidation will probably make those who toe the government line even more convinced that Shia religious forces are pulling the opposition’s strings.
Having said that, anyone with knowledge of Bahrain will know that forced confessions are the bread and butter of the Bahrain police. Also, the fact the policeman asked the boy to confirm that he would tell this same story in front of the judge is telling. If we look at one of the accounts of torture in the BICI report (Case No 48), the victim mentions how the captors threatened to beat him further if he changed his coerced confession before the judge. Furthermore, if you read through all the accounts of torture in the BICI, most contain a reference to being coerced into signing a confession. Case No 37 was forced to sign a confession saying he had carried out operations for Hezbollah, while Case No. 51 was forced to sign a confession saying he had tried to kill two policemen. Peruse the rest here and see for yourself.
Also, if this evidence is used by the courts and seen as admissible, surely Isa Qassim and Ali Salman will be arrested for inciting violence? If they are not, then is the evidence in its entirety void? Will be interesting to see how MOI handle this. Lastly, in an interesting point raised by activist Sayed Yousif, is this video recorded in the same room as those with CCTV cameras installed following BICI recommendations? Presumably, this interrogation should have been caught on CCTV too…
The discussion about the role played by British officers in carrying out torture in Bahrain tends to focus on Colonel Ian Henderson. However, British officials in Bahrain were torturing long before Ian Henderson’s arrival in the late sixties. Indeed, torture at the hands of the police has been occurring in Bahrain since the birth of the police force in the 1920s. Most of the information here is taken from the diary of Charles Belgrave, who was financial adviser to the Ruler of Bahrain from 1926-1957. All the stories here involve either Belgrave or Captain L.S. Parke, the Commandant of the Bahrain Police from 1927 – 1931.
Generally speaking, torture occurred during the investigation of relatively high profile incidents, such as the assassination attempt on the Shaykh, the shooting of the Political Agent, and the raid on police offices. This ties in with a lot of the scholarship on repression, which finds that repressive measures tend to increase when elites feel threatened. Having said that, I am sure it occurred a lot more frequently than is documented by Belgrave. While some might say ‘but those were different time’, it is interesting to note that Belgrave himself acknowledges the barbarity of such tortuous methods.
Oriental Methods, and those of a Mild Spanish Inquisition
On 4th August 1926, Ismail Shah Murad, a Baluchi sepoy of the Levy Corps, shot and killed fellow Levies Subedar Niaz Ali Khan and Havaldar Nuur Daad (Al-Tajjir, 1987).* After Major Daly (the British Political Agent) intervened, Ismail stabbed him five times with a bayonet. In the end, and in line with British suspicion of Bolshevik agents that was common at the time, a Mullah from the Russian Persian frontier was found guilty of masterminding the affair and deported (although Belgrave doubted his complicity in the case). During the course of the investigation, Belgrave admits to using methods of a ‘mild Spanish Inquisition’:
Paid out the men. Really they are not such a bad looking crowd, I believe only three or four of them were affected but Daly wants them to go bag & baggage,yet I’m sure that wont be sanctioned. Arrested another of the men who I really believe knew all about it, but though we used methods of a mild Spanish Inquisition we could get nothing out of him. I felt sorry for the boy. (Belgrave, Belgrave Diaries, 15 August 1926)
During the late twenties, the police were investigating a raid on the town of Sanabis. Captain L.S. Parke used sleep deprivation methods in order to make one of the suspects speak:
Parke looked in very excited as he thinks he has got one of the men who was in the raid on Senobis two years ago. The Police have been after him ever since. The difficulty will be to make his talk. This is such a civilised place that one cant do even mild torture but P’s idea is to keep him from sleeping for a few nights and then he may talk, that is not exactly torture. (Belgrave, Belgrave Diares, 12 Novemeber 1928)
In 1926 there was an assassination attempt on Shaykh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, the Ruler of Bahrain. Ibrahim bin Khalid bin Ali Al Khalifa was found guilty of carrying out the attack, though I am inclined to think Hamad’s brother was behind it (Read here for more on this. The fact information was extracted from suspects under duress perhaps strengthens my argument that it may not have been Ibrahim bin Khalid.) In the course of the investigation, ‘oriental methods were used’: Read on for more details:
They were taking the case of the attempt on the Shaikh. The men admitted that it had been ordered by Shaikh Khalid a near relation of the Shaikhs. Barrett wrote officially to the Shaikh telling him of his various relations who were implicated in the murders but the Shaikh does not dare to do anything about them. It makes me really very angry. Barrett spoke about the business of the Police having used rather oriental methods with the prisoners to get them to give evidence. Parke ordered it and Barrett is very angry with him, one thing they did was to tie the men up and then put lighted papers between their toes. Of course it is a pity that it came out, but knowing the men and what they have done I dont feel much compunction for them, It is a pity that Parke took part in it himself (Belgrave, Belgrave Diaries, 16 April 1929)
In 1932, during Bahrain’s economic recession brought about by the collapse of the pearling industry, a group of divers broke into the police station to release a fellow diver who had been imprisoned some days earlier. In order to find the ringleaders, Belgrave beat some of the suspects, a procedure he noted as being ‘barbarous and illegal’:
Prior came over and we composed a long telegram to the P.R. reporting the matter,then Haji Sulman came in and after some time I went with him up to the Fort where I spent the whole morning till two oclock interrogating the prisoners, at first they wouldnt speak but I beat a few of them till they did speak,it was all very barbarous and illegal but on some occasions one has to behave illegally. They gave me the information that I needed and on that I was able to make a list of the names of the men who were the ringleaders and who actually broke into the Police Office and took the man out. (27 May 1932)
* Al-Tajjir puts the date as 1st August, though I believe this is the date when another policeman tried to kill Hajji Salman bin Jasim, the head of the police.
Recently it was reported that British police threatened to taser a Bahraini prince for his drunken antics on a British Airways flight to Bahrain. Apparently the prince attempted to ‘storm the cockpit’ and complain to the captain about the poor service. Although the Daily Mail and the Sun are hardly the most credible news sources in Britain, they are probably more so than Bahrain’s Information Affairs Authority, who claimed that the prince was neither drunk nor a prince. Instead they claimed that the man had had a bad reaction to medication, and attempted to enter the cockpit to speak to the captain after flight crew forbade him from flying (Note to self: should I ever miss work because of a hangover, try the medication excuse).
While most of us are prone to moments of excess, such brattish behavior is far more vulgar when carried out by members of the privileged classes. We expect more from ‘them’, and it is only exemplary behavior on their part makes their wealth and power remotely palatable. Unfortunately, it is often one rule for the elites, and another for everyone else.
Although headline-grabbing, the drunken antics of a prince pale in significance compared to alarming accusations leveled against Prince Nasser, the King of Bahrain’s son. He is accused by a number of opposition figures of actively carrying out torture during last year’s demonstrations. He is not, however, the first prince in Bahrain to be accused of abhorrent behavior, and it is interesting to delve into the history books to compare Nasser’s behavior with that of a ‘prince’ who lived 100 years ago. I am in fact, talking about the infamous Sheikh Abdulla bin Isa Al Khalifa, son of Sheikh Isa bin Ali Al Khalifa, who ruled Bahrain from 1869 – 1923. Such a comparison highlights the historical grievances that many Bahrainis, and in particular the indigenous Baharna, have with the ruling Al-Khalifa family. This exercise is particularly useful when pro-government rhetoric and PR aims to remove any historical context from Bahrain’s politics, choosing instead to justify continued authoritarian rule by using terms like ‘new beginnings’, ‘both sides made mistakes’, and ‘democracy takes time’.
His Highness Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa (born: 8 May 1987)
Bahraini activist Mohammed Hasan Jawad (Parweez) claims that Sheikh Nasser flogged, beat and kicked him and fellow prisoner Mohammed Habeeb al-Moqdad whilst they were detained in a Manama prison. Nasser was also criticized for launching a vindictive campaign against those Bahraini athletes who engaged in anti-government protests. Last year he tweeted that all athletes in detention should be given life imprisonment, a ludicrous statement for so many reasons, not least because any rational person might suppose they deserve to be tried before sentencing in considered. Nasser was also quoted as saying on Bahrain TV (the country’s state-run television channel)
“Anyone who called for the fall of the regime, may a wall fall on his head. Whether he is an athlete, socialite or politician — whatever he is — he will be held accountable . . . Bahrain is an island and there is nowhere to escape”.
In light of the severity of the accusations leveled against him, William Hague alluded to the fact that Prince Nasser would be closely assessed before being granted entry to the UK. Given that it would not be ‘proper’ to deny a visa to the son of the King of Bahrain – an important UK ally, it was highly unlikely that Prince Nasser would be denied entry. This did not stop Nasser deleting all his tweets though (a futile act given most of them are archived and can be read here). Unsurprisingly, Nasser was granted a visa, and it was reported that he was actually in the UK from about mid-June.
Sheikh Abdulla bin Isa Al Khalifa
Sheikh Abdulla was the youngest son of Sheikh Isa bin Ali Al Khalifa, and not technically a prince since Bahrain had no king back then. Major Clive Kirkpatrick Daly ( Britain’s Political Agent in Bahrain from 1921 – 1926) made numerous notes pertaining to Sheikh Abdulla’s crimes. In 1921 Daly writes that ‘Bahrain is in a constant state of unrest owing to the Political intrigues of a small party under the leadership of Sheikh Abdulla’. He also provides a brief overview of the oppression carried out by the ruling family, which included ‘illegal seizure of property, wrongful imprisonment with cruelty, and political murders, for which no one has been brought to trial, and no effort made to enforce justice’. What is also interesting about Sheikh Abdulla is that, despite the accusations made against him, he later became a judge sitting on the court of appeal responsible for trying members of the HEC committee that threatened Al Khalifa hegemony in 1956.
Daly then writes a separate document detailing a selection of the crimes perpetrated by Abdulla. I have included a few of the reports (taken from the India Office’s records on Bahrain), as they make fascinating reading. Some are so outlandish – it feels like watching an episode of Bab al-Hara.
The Prostitute Scam
3. Shaik Abdulla keeps a prostitute named Masoodeh, a jewess whom he seduced, and who was for a time his mistress. He has had an arrangement with this woman whereby she lures young men of respectable families to her house. There they are raided by Abdulla’s fidawis [armed retainers] and sums of money are recovered from them under threats of exposure and imprisonment. A considerable sum of money is said to have been realised in this way.
Abdulla, Pimps, and Forced Sex
5. Sheikh Abdulla is ruler of the village of Jidhafs. His Wazir there one Abdulla bin Razi and his wife, act as procurers for Sheikh Abdulla. Several women have been compelled to visit Sheikh Abdulla at the Wazir’s house. The daughter of Bin Marhun was abducted and kept there for some days, as also was the daughter of Syed Qasim. In each case the parents were threatened and as they would get not justice in any case, endeavoured to escape the ignomy of public exposure. These two girls have since been sent to Qatif each year when it is the season for Abdulla to visit Jidhafs.
12. The daughter of Bin Suweileh of Houreh was abducted by Sheikh Abdulla and subsequently turned adrift as a prostitute.
8. A plot of land with some dwelling premises belonging to Abdul Rasool bin Haji Hussain of Sinabis had been seized without pretext by Sheikh Abdulla and given to one of his mistresses, who now lives there.
10. Shaikh Abdulla siezed the house of Haji Ahmed bin Shaaban in Sinabis on a false pretext, and still remains in it.
A Truly Tragic Tale of Kidnap, Extortion and Death
11. Sheikh Abdulla’s servants abducted a girl a native of Fars. her parents after searching for her for some time returned home and left behind one Muhammed Abdulla to continue the search. He discovered that she was being kept by Shaikh Abdulla. The latter then passed her on to an arab of Zallaq receiving Rs 400 (Rs = rupees). Muhammad Abdulla on behalf of the parents made efforts to recover the girl. He did so on payment of Rs 500 and on condition that he himself married her. She was pregnant and subsequently died in childbirth.
21. Shaikh Abdulla sent for the daughter of one Ali Basri. Her parents refused to send her. Abdulla’s Mother, who has recently assumed the title of Queen of Bahrain ordered the mother to send the girl at once or leave Bahrain. The girl was subsequently induced to marry one of Shaikh Abdull’s [sic] servant but has been put in one of Shaik Abdulla’s houses and is kept as a mistress
22. Some men grazing camels belonging to the Rulers [sic] wife, recently seized a small boy outside a village and committed unnatural offences. The villagers protested and said they would complain to the “Queen”. When they did so, that lady imprisoned about 12 of the leaders and detained them in prison. She refused to send the case to the Qadhi [judge] and subsequently released them after payment of Rs 250.
Abdulla’s Uncle Khalid
19. Another sources [sic] revenue of this member (Sheikh Khalid) is to demand labour from the Shaih subjects during the period of 7th – 10th of Muharram, during which time it is forbidden by their religion to work. If they decline, as they must do a cash fine in lieu is realised.
Interestingly, Charles Belgrave (Personal and Financial Advisor to both Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and his son Salman from 1926 – 1957) described Abdulla in entirely different terms. Belgrave writes of Abdulla;
He was handsome, always well dressed, witty and shrewd. He was a man of the world, with a keen sense of humour and a roving eye.
While it is highly doubtful that Belgrave was ignorant of Abdulla’s exploits, the difference between his and Daly’s accounts are on a par with the differing perceptions we see in Bahrain today. No doubt many believe that the King’s son is incapable of carrying out such atrocious acts, yet such naivety is often dangerous, for it presupposes that such behaviors are not the actions of modern men, but simply those of fictional princes or historical caricatures
Some Closing Observations
Abdulla never faced any sort of justice for the crimes he was accused of, and it is naive to believe that Prince Nasser Al-Khalifa will be investigated by the Bahrain authorities. On the contrary, the Al Khalifas and the ruling elite have enjoyed immunity through their tenure as the ruling family. They have repeatedly engineered strategies to keep themselves and their allies out of prison, including the National Safety Law, Royal Decree 56, the State Security Law and the BICI report.
The role of the British and now American protection should also not be underestimated. Even Major Daly acknowledged the detriments of Bahrain’s deal with the British government, which allowed the Al Khalifas to terrorise the population with little or no consequence. In 1921, Daly writes
It is said to me that, if we extend our protection to the Bahrain government, so that it is immune from outside danger, we should use our influence effectually, in order that the inhabitants be not unduly oppressed, and that they should have a reasonably efficient Government in comparison with other Arab states. ‘Failing this’, I am asked, ‘Why do you not remove the British protection, then we should at least have the redress usually resorted to by Arabs. We should appeal to another Arab ruler to take over our country and treat us better.’
Ninety years on, Toby Craig Jones writes
Most importantly, its (the American base) presence enables regional allies to act recklessly. Saudi Arabia would almost certainly not have sent its troops into neighboring Bahrain – a sovereign country – if the Saudi and Bahraini leaderships did not assume they were protected by their patrons in the U.S. military.
The purpose of this comparison was to vividly highlight erroneous assumption that ‘modernity’ brings with it an improvement in things like human rights, compassion and justice. It is patently evident that many things have not changed, and even more obvious that Bahrain’s elite have escaped justice for centuries. The fact we are inundated with rhetoric such as ‘reform’ and ‘moving forward’ belies the continued existence of the one common variable in Bahrain’s unrest – the refusal of many within the Al Khalifa family to relinquish their hold on the nation’s power and wealth.
What’s more, the British and Americans have, through direct or indirect means, continued to offer support for a regime whose legitimacy is in tatters. Even now, John Yates (former assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police) and John Timoney (former head of Miami Police) are attempting to offer a fig leaf of legitimacy to a police force who are, in many ways, a modern day incarnation of the fidawis.
Addressing or investigating the crimes of the Al Khalifas would threaten the fundamental logic of their existence, which is to protect the integrity of the tribe from outside incursion. This tribal logic will always resist a fair and just legal system, for rule of law is inevitably subverted when it threatens to harm the interests the Al Khalifas. Obviously I am not saying all Al Khalifas are criminals, but when they are, what are the odds of justice being done?
Finally, it is interesting to see that Daly saw the Al Khalifas themselves to be among the main sources of unrest in Bahrain. He even stated that the oppression carried out by Sheikh Abdulla and his cronies to be tantamount to ‘terrorism’. I do wonder then, what Daly would think if he was alive today? Would he be so quick to call those throwing Molotov cocktails terrorists and thugs, or would he see their resistance as an understandable reaction to a legacy of injustice?
*The President’s Office actually made a legal complaint against the Guardian after they published an article highlighting the accusations against Prince Nasser).