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London tribunal begins today to decide on the release of secret documents

Today, 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.

 

On 16 February, the FCO filed evidence at court from a senior diplomat, Edward Oakden, to the middle east who gave evidence at the hearing this morning. His statement, reiterated in court says:

Bahrain is a generous host to the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, providing basing and overflight rights free of charge. In December 2014, the Foreign Secretary signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Government of Bahrain to establish a more permanent naval base in Bahrain, which the King has agreed to fund. The new agreement will provide improved facilities for UK Royal Navy personnel; allow us to expand our operational effectiveness in a volatile region; and will also provide us with a forward base for naval operations. [REDACTED] … If the Bahraini authorities were to conclude that confidential information exchanged during the course of UK reform assistance projects could now be released, they could be less inclined to continue to accept such assistance, as we have also seen happen in other countries. Disclosure of this material would then cause damage to our initiatives to enhance human rights, civil liberties and good governance at a time when the UK is providing increasingly sensitive assistance on police reform in the security sector.

 

Most of Mr Oakden’s statement was redacted and was considered by the tribunal at a secret “Closed” hearing within a hearing in which no members of Marc’s team or the public were present.

 

Marc Jones said “My appeal is reflecting public concern that the British Government has insulated the Government of Bahrain from criticism of serious human rights abuses including torture, and may have concealed evidence of serious wrong-doing. How can the government seriously use the recent decision to open a defence base in Bahrain to justify a decision to withhold information they made over 18 months ago?

I believe it is not in the public interest for the FCO to withhold information about the contentious relationship between Britain and Bahrain going back to the seventies. The spurious argument that the new British base deal should serve as a reason to keep the information secret is also objectionable, as the FCO’s decision to withhold came long before the new base deal was announced in December 2014. Furthermore, the nature of the hearing itself, in which most of the FCO’s evidence is secret, is also undemocratic, and makes a mockery of both the procedure and our right to know. As was noted in the white paper on our right to know, “unnecessary secrecy in government leads to arrogance in governance and defective decision-making”. It is also questionable that the particular document being withheld is a conversation involving Ian Henderson, now dead, who is a Briton also accused of torture serving as head of the police during the brutal crushing of the Mau Mau Insurgency in Kenya. Here again involved in torture in Bahrain. But we may never know.”

 

His solicitor, Sue Willman said, “What is on trial here is the transparency and the accountability of the actions of the British Government in relation to Bahrain. Also on trial is the worrying trend towards secret justice in the UK, when most of the relevant evidence will be heard in closed proceedings so my client has no idea what is being said and no means of challenging it ”.

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