Rich Relations: Britain, Bahrain and Police Brutality

Bahrain, the kingdom of the two seas. A mainly Shia people of 1.4 million ruled by a minority Sunni elite. The despotic Sheikh Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa heads this nominal constitutional monarchy. A good egg, Mons Officer Cadet School (now Sandhurst) educated. Bans on public demonstrations. Restrictions on freedom of expression. Political parties prohibited, political societies allowed. Discrimination in jobs, health and housing. Five years in prison for “undermining” the government. A silence of journalists. Self-censorship. And 2017 marked death by firing squad for three Shia Muslims convicted of involvement in a bombing three years earlier, the first executions since 2010. Rumours of confession through torture.

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Admiral Gary Roughead, Chief of US Naval Operations meets King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, 17 January 2011. Source: Official Navy Page, Wiki Commons

Manama, Bahrain’s capital, home to the Arab Spring’s Pearl Revolution of 2011. Saudi troops called in to crush civil and political rights activists. Around 50 dead and hundreds arrested and injured. Over 3,500 imprisoned under this “Egyptian” strategy. Allegations of torture and mistreatment by the Ministry of Interior’s Criminal Investigation Directorate: beatings, electric shock, extreme cold, forced standing, mid-air suspension while handcuffed, and sexual abuse. The king’s son, Prince Nasser bin Hamad al-Khalifa, was allegedly involved in this torture. More than 4,000 sacked from their jobs or kicked out of university. No dissent brooked.

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Tents burn as security forces storm Pearl Roundabout, 16 March 2011. Source: Bahrain in Pictures, Wiki Commons

Rich relations persist between Britain and Bahrain following the latter’s independence from “protection” in 1971. 500 UK commercial agencies operate in Bahrain, with 90 businesses having branches in the kingdom. £295.5 million worth of goods were exported to Bahrain from Britain in 2014. £45 million of British arms sold to Bahrain between the Arab Spring and 2015.

With a liberal economy based on oil, banking, finance and construction, Bahrain was the first Gulf state to sign a Free Trade Agreement with the USA. The US Navy’s Fifth Fleet is based there too.

Are British interests in Bahrain, both commercial and political, causing a blind-eye in Westminster and Whitehall being turned to human rights violations in the Gulf?

The UK College of Policing has earned over £8.5 million from its overseas work since 2012. According to Alex Marshall, the College’s chief executive,

The College would never provide training, or support the use of its products, in a country which was considered to be using British resources for unethical purposes. [ … ] The College would consider it a disappointing lack of due diligence if a proposed formal contract had to be rejected on the basis of further human rights guidance from IPAB [International Police Assistance Brief].

Yet when pressed on this matter by the Home Office Select Committee, officials stonewalled:

We asked the College of Policing for details of their overseas work. Alex Marshall told us that he was advised by the Foreign Office not to answer our questions on this matter and cited reasons of commercial confidentiality and security.

The College of Policing signed an “agreement for the provision of services” with Bahrain in June 2015. Daniel Carey, of DPG Law, criticizes the document for not referring to human rights:

The agreement cedes a lot of control to the Bahrain government to pick and choose the areas it would like training on. It provides for all of the other controls you would expect: freedom of information; force majeure; confidentiality; intellectual property; termination; bribery. Why not human rights? Saying that this will be slipped into a subcontract does not seem to be an effective way to protect against human rights risks, especially after resisting disclosure of any of these details to a parliamentary committee.”

Collaboration by both British and Bahraini security forces is managed from the UK by the shadowy £1 billion Conflict, Security and Stability Fund (CSSF). Set up in April 2015 to replace a fund previously overseen by the Department for International Development, the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence, the CSSF is run by the National Security Council, a Cabinet Office committee. Partners comprise such controversial companies as G4S. Other repressive regimes receiving CSSF cash include Ethiopia.

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Atop the nearby police station, men in street clothes used high-powered cameras to snap photographs of protesters, 2011. Source: Al Jazeera English, Wiki Commons

In September 2015, the CSSF paid for a group of officials, including representatives from the British Embassy at Manama, to attend the British Mission to the United Nations at Geneva. According to journalists Alan White and Richard Wilson:

Experts who attended the meetings have told BuzzFeed News that the delegation who arrived in Geneva played a key role as British diplomats pushed their testimony around the UN while they pressed for references to torture and other human rights abuses to be removed from the draft text of the statement.

British officials are accused of watering-down a UN resolution criticizing human rights infringements in Bahrain. An early draft of this resolution seen by BuzzFeed shows that references to “arbitrary detention”, “indiscriminate use of riot police” and “repressive measures” were excised from the agreed final text. The sentence “We urge the government of Bahrain to make the institutions more impartial” was massaged to “We support the government of Bahrain continuing to work to make these institutions and the judiciary more impartial.”

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Bahrain, a Ballardian realization, July 2011. Source: Majed othman almajed, Wiki Commons

Last year Britain spent £2.1 million on “reform assistance” to Bahrain’s security apparatus. Earlier this week the Sunday Times disclosed that Maya Foa of Reprieve, a human rights organization, has seen details of CSSF financed activities, including a trip by Tariq al-Hassan (Bahrain’s chief of police) to Northern Ireland:

The documents reveal that al-Hassan toured Belfast’s “flashpoint” neighbourhoods in a visit in June 2014 that included a briefing on gathering “community intelligence” and human rights complaint systems. In August 2015 a delegation of Bahraini senior commanders and frontline officers visited Belfast to learn how to manage “large-scale public order issues in a human rights compliant fashion.”

Briefings were given on dog-handling and water cannon. Reprieve charges further that “Britain paid for Bahrain’s police to learn how to whitewash deaths in custody.”

The Foreign Office denies that any public order training took place, the visit was a “technical assistance” programme. Using similar Orwellian language Alan Todd, assistant chief constable for the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), issued a similar denial:

The Bahrain delegation visited in August 2015 and, while in Northern Ireland, they observed a number of public order events and received a number of presentations on aspects of PSNI public order planning and delivery. At no time did the PSNI undertake any form of training with the officers.

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Police Officers at the 2011 Belfast riots. Source: Sinead, Flickr, Wiki Commons

Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, of the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, charges:

The UK government has repeatedly denied providing any public order training, and now we know for a fact they’ve trained a police force which violently crushes pro-democracy protesters with sophisticated, British-made methods.

Are British officials conniving to cover-up relations by the British and Bahraini police? I agree with a report issued by the Home Affairs Select Committee:

We fully support the UK assisting police forces in other countries to improve the service they provide. The College of Policing has been put under pressure by the Home Office to raise revenue, including through providing overseas training, and we support its efforts in doing so. We note in passing the College’s insistence that as far as England and Wales are concerned they do not see themselves as a training body but as a standards setting body. The UK brand of policing is rightly respected internationally and should be disseminated as widely as possible. However, the provision of training on the basis of opaque agreements, sometimes with foreign governments which have been the subject of sustained criticism, threatens the integrity of the very brand of British policing that the College is trying to promote. It simply smacks of hypocrisy.

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Map of Bahrain. Source: CIA World Factbook, 2002, Wiki Commons

Sources

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