Verdict still retains secrecy of the core of the evidence on UK-Bahrain relationship despite ordering further disclosure
As reported by the Independent today, the Information Tribunal in London has ruled that the contents of diplomatic cable from 1977 should be partially disclosed, yet a full disclosure will not occur on the basis that it ‘the remainder of the disputed information would – as opposed to would be likely to – have an adverse effect on relations between the UK and Bahrain’.
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”. After complaining to the Information Commissioner, the FCO released some of the requested information, but the FCO, the Information Commissioner, and now the lower tier tribunal, believe that it will definitely damage the relationship between Bahrain and Britain. In their decision notice, made on 29 April 2015, the Tribunal stated that it:
…believes that some limited and additional evidence that is currently redacted can be made public but, apart from that, the information that is then withheld is properly withheld under the provisions of section 27 – 16 – FOIA on the basis that the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosing it.
The FCO has said it may appeal against the decision. If it does not appeal, the extra evidence will be made public on 30 May (31 days after the decision).
The tribunal heard secret evidence of senior diplomat Edward Oakden,who argued in open and written submission that Britain’s defense interests would be prejudiced, not just in Bahrain but the entire Gulf. In particular, Oakden inferred that the release of such information could jeopardise Britain’s new military base deal in Bahrain. Citing the following:
Bahrain was a generous host of 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 had agreed to fund. The new agreement provided improved facilities for UK Royal Navy personnel and allowed the UK to expand its operational effectiveness in a volatile region and would provide for the future a forward base for naval operations.”
The decision notice does not deny that the redacted information contains information about egregious acts committed by the Bahraini security services.
Marc Owen Jones stated:
Of course this can only be seen as a partial victory, and the decision to release only some of the information is naturally disappointing. However, following an appeal to the information commissioner, and a subsequent appeal to the regulatory tribunal, we have actually got a substantial amount of information from a request that was initially denied by the FCO. I fear though, that the FCO may be using this lengthy and expensive process of attrition to deter people from making subsequent FOI requests. It’s a form of bureaucratic repression, and we are reluctant to frame this as a victory, and the result is essentially a facade of transparency that still allows the British government to shield its allies from proper scrutiny.
Marc’s solicitor, Sue Willman of Deighton Pierce Glynn said:
Half of the judgement is secret so we still don’t know the secret reasons why we cant see the secret evidence. The decision to disclose a bit more is welcome, but I am disappointed that the tribunal has not upheld the public interest in seeing all the evidence in the light of continuing reports of serious human rights violations from Bahrain including the Human Rights Watch report on torture in Jau prison.
The document in question-‘Bahrain: Internal Political situation 1977’
The document concerns the internal security situation in Bahrain and reports on a conversation between head of Bahrain Special Branch, Ian Henderson, a British citizen 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 Bahraini security services, and it would be important to shed more light on the reasons for this. It is revealed that at the time, there were 11 British police officers including Ian Henderson in Bahrain, so the UK clearly played some role in the internal affairs of 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. Tatham Middle East Department 1st December 1977 –END TEXT