In order to shed greater light on the role of Ian Henderson, the British citizen who was head of Bahrain’s Special Branch for around 30 years, I sent a freedom of information request to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) regarding a retained document about an informal conversation that took place in 1977 between Henderson and David Tatham (Tatham was, at the time, an employee in the Middle East Department of the FCO). Despite a timely response, the FCO refused to release the document on the grounds it may prejudice the relations between the UK and ‘any other state’. During the course of the request, the FCO considered arguments to determine whether or not the ‘public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosing the information’. These arguments were as follows;
“In favour of release: we acknowledge that disclosure of information relating to the UK’s relations with Bahrain would add to the understanding and knowledge of this subject. There is a public interest in a greater understanding of the United Kingdom’s foreign relations and the information could also aid the public to a better historical understanding of Britain’s conduct.
In favour of withholding: however, in this case we consider that the effective conduct of the United Kingdom’s bilateral relations with countries in the Gulf region, and its ability to protect and promote its interests in this region, would be compromised if we released this information”.
Although the FCO provided two arguments, they failed to explain why one outweighed the other. The argument in favour of withholding is also very vague, and does not seem like an adequate response to a very specific request. Given that the document is well over 30 years old, it is unclear why its release will necessarily prejudice relations between the UK and the Gulf. It is also unclear as to why the FCO could not have provided a redacted version of the document. In a previous FOI request I made to the Metropolitan Police concerning Bahrain, they released the document but redacted parts on the grounds that it contained sensitive bits of personal information. Could this not be done with this request? .
With regards to the argument in favour of releasing the document, it does not seem to adequately acknowledge the extent of the public interest concerning the matter.This is not simply about wanting to further understand the UK’s foreign relations with Bahrain, but it is about Britain’s post colonial legacy, and the extent of the involvement of British private citizens in Bahrain’s internal security. Given the widespread allegations of torture against Henderson and other members of the Bahraini police, it is in the interest of citizens in both Bahrain and Britain to find out more about the activities of the security forces.
In light of the recent reparations paid by the British government to the victims of Britains brutal crushing of the Mau Mau insurgency in Kenya, it is even more important to understand what happened in Bahrain. This is especially pertinent given that Henderson was instrumental in crushing the Mau Mau insurgency before he went to Bahrain. It is unclear whether the refusal of this request genuinely lies in the interest of the public, or whether it is an attempt at stalling the release of important information, something that the British government was accused of in the Mau Mau case.
Britain’s Role In Bahrain
Although the Mau Mau achieved some degree of justice, the British role in Bahrain has remained relatively muted. This is despite the fact that Britain have played a prominent role in protecting Bahrain’s government ever since 1861, when Bahrain became a virtual protectorate. Even after Independence in 1971, Britain’s relationship with Bahrain is as strong as ever, and in 2012 the two countries signed an agreement on defence cooperation. In 2011, the former Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan police John Yates was brought into increase the efficacy of the Bahrain police after they were accused of widespread abuses during the Pearl uprising.
Yet John Yates is just the latest in a long line of British policeman and advisors sent to work with the Bahrain security forces. As early as the 1920, when Britain played a more overt role in policing Bahrain, British officials admitted to using torture on Bahrainis. Even after Independence, British officers still headed up the Bahrain Police and Bahrain Special Branch. Torture continued, yet the British blamed ‘Arab mercenaries’. Even if British officials were not directly involved in torture post-independence, they certainly knew that it happened.
Given Britain’s special relationship with Bahrain, and given that British officers have held executive command positions in the police since as late as 2002, the United Kingdom has a greater degree of responsibility in responding to allegations of brutality directed at the security forces. As it stands, the British government have remained quiet regarding the role of British officers accused of torture. An investigation into Ian Henderson launched by the Metropolitan police was dropped, and the British government have never officially acknowledged that British officials used torture before Bahrain’s independence.
This impunity enjoyed by the security forces is less a ‘culture of impunity’, and more a tradition of impunity. Attempts to hold security personnel accountable for killings civilians during times of political upheaval have all floundered. In the wake of the 2011 uprising, legal proceedings against officers accused of abuses are little more than a farce. After the 1990s Intifada, when security forces were accused of extrajudicial killing and torture, King Hamad issued Royal Decree 56. This absolved any of the state security forces from being prosecuted for crimes committed.
The Need for Truth
The FOI request for information about Henderson is part of a broader attempt to determine the truth behind Bahrain’s notoriously repressive security apparatus. Indeed, in order to promote ‘positive stability’ in Bahrain, and potentially end the cyclical bouts of national unrest that have afflicted the country for decades, the country must confront its past before it can move forward. However,this cannot be done without the truth, which itself is imperative in achieving accountability and justice.
As an important ally of Bahrain, Britain has a responsibility to encourage and facilitate this search for truth. Paradoxically, failure to disclose potentially important information will, in the long run, contradict the stated reasons for withholding the evidence – for the revelation of such truths may be instrumental in helping Bahrain move forward by confronting its past. By seeking to facilitate the pursuit of truth, the UK would be contributing to a more stable future for Bahrain, and thus be encouraging a less controversial bilateral relationship. As it stands, there is a real risk that Britain’s current relationship with Bahrain is one that will continue to generate further popular animosity among Bahrainis towards the UK.
Note: The decision to refuse the FOI request has been appealed. If you want to read the whole request, go here.