Judge to decide on 18-month battle to release secret British document on Bahrain
On 10 March, the Information Rights Tribunal in London will consider whether to order the Foreign Office to reveal secret communications between Foreign Office officials which are nearly 40 years old. In June 2013, Marc Owen 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. He then instructed London human rights lawyers, Deighton Pierce Glynn to appeal to the Information Tribunal, instructing barrister Sam Jacobs of Doughty Street Chambers.
In his appeal, Marc Owen Jones says “Given the recent case against the FCO by Kenyan Mau Mau, I am concerned that important evidence regarding the involvement of British citizens in quashing dissent in Bahrain is being withheld. Please bear in mind that one of the parties involved in this FOI request [namely Ian Henderson] played an important role in repressing the Mau Mau before going to Bahrain. I believe it is in the interest of the British public to know the exact extent of British involvement in the potentially nefarious activities used to crush dissent in Bahrain”.
In his appeal he argues that to suggest that disclosing the record of a conversation which took place almost thirty-eight years ago, where one of the parties is now deceased, would damage the extremely close and durable relationship between Bahrain and the UK which has lasted for decades was completely absurd. He also argued it was unfair that the FCO’s full reasons for refusing to disclose the evidence were a secret so he has no chance to respond.
The basis of appeal – an attempt at lifting the shroud of secrecy
- Procedural unfairness. Previous refusals have relied on a review of undisclosed material but also on reasons which are not disclosed. The FCO appears to have reviewed documents, whilst Marc was not even given an opportunity to respond to any reasons given. Previous decisions lacked sufficient information and so are procedurally unfair. Marc believes more of the information relied upon should be made public and fuller reasons given so that he is able to properly respond to it.
- No real and direct causal relationship exists between potential disclosure and claimed prejudice. To suggest that disclosing the record of a conversation which took place almost thirty-seven years ago, where one of the parties is now deceased, would damage the extremely close and durable relationship between Bahrain and the UK which has lasted for decades is Marc argues “completely absurd”. Marc hopes to produce evidence that the disclosure of far more significant information has not damaged the UK’s relations with Bahrain. It is unclear why this claim needed to be dealt with in secret, and it is submitted that this is procedurally unfair.
- General public interest in promoting transparency, accountability, public understanding and involvement in the democratic process. This interest also extends to citizens of other countries. Britain has a long history of close relations with Bahrain against a background of allegations of egregious human rights abuses including torture and extra-judicial executions. There is public concern that the British Government has insulated the Government of Bahrain from criticism, and may have concealed evidence of serious wrong-doing. This factor does not appear to have been given any weight and has not been referred to in previous decisions.
- The public interest in presenting a full picture. “In terms of arguments in favour of disclosure, the Commissioner agreed “that disclosure of the redacted information would provide a further and genuinely informative insight into the security situation in Bahrain in the 1970s”. Marc argues this is a limited approach and there is public interest in presenting a fuller picture.
- The public interest in the removal of a plausible suspicion of wrongdoing, which clearly applies in relation to both Ian Henderson and UK Government officials in this case. The evidence could shed light on the question of complicity by these actors, or otherwise in egregious acts against citizens of Bahrain. The information could have a potential in this situation to help remove the plausible suspicion of wrongdoing, whilst the matters are still within collective memory but at a time period which is sufficiently far removed to reduce embarrassment to those involved. Again, this factor does not appear to have been given any weight.
The document in question-“Bahrain: Internal Political situation 1977”
The documents concerns the internal security situation in Bahrain and was between Henderson himself and an FCO official, David Tatham. It is therefore believed that the document might have important information pertaining to Henderson’s role and his activities in Bahrain. Information released under FOIA requests alludes to serious issues within the security services, and it would be important to shed more light on the reasons for this, since such issues could have contributed to abuses in Bahrain. At this time, there were 11 British police officers including Ian Henderson in Bahrain, so the UK had a role in events in Bahrain.
I met Brigadier Ian Henderson the Head of the Bahrain Special Branch, at a recent Home Office Conference on security equipment […] I asked the Brigadier about his plans and how he saw the future. Brigadier Henderson said he hoped to leave Bahrain within six months, but there were problems. He believed that if he went the Commander of Police, Mr Bell, and the nine British Special Branch officers (I had no idea there were so many) would also leave. His personal relations with the ruler and other responsible Bahrainis would be soured however tactfully he gave his notice. He thought the effort effect on the efficiency of the security apparatus generally would be severe. At present he and Mr Bell were trying hard to keep up standards but a general sloppiness was creeping in. [REDACTED] 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. D.E. Tetham Middle East Department 1st December 1977 –END TEXT
FCO censorship and the Right to Know- two-thirds of FOI requests declined
Bahrain Watch has made 21 FOI requests of which two thirds (14 in total) have been declined on similar grounds, one partially released, three are awaiting public interest tests and three have been made available. This campaign is being conducted by researchers and PhD researchers. If you have made any FOI requests related to the Gulf, please get in touch.
The public hearing will take place at 10am at the following address:
15 Bream’s Buildings
Please join the demonstration starting at 9am outside the court house.