BAHRAIN: Former detainees want Britain held to account for barbaric acts, writes FINIAN CUNNINGHAMin Manama
BLINDFOLDING, electrocution, physical and sexual assault are just a few of the maltreatments to which recently released political prisoners have claimed they were subjected to during their detention by the Bahraini state.
Up to 25 prisoners were set free last week by the state. It was a concession to appease the growing popular uprising that is demanding the overthrow of the unelected government headed by King Hamad al-Khalifa and his uncle and prime minister Prince Khalifa al-Khalifa. The latter has been in office for 40 years, since the country gained nominal independence from Britain in 1971.
Amnesty International said it is due to publish a report into what it calls “the increasing trend towards egregious abuses by the state security forces” towards those held in custody.
Several of the detainees, who include academics, human rights activists, bloggers and clerics, spoke to The Irish Times about the conditions during their incarceration. All claimed they were subjected to extreme torture and showed symptoms of abuse. Up to 400 other political prisoners, including young teenagers, remain in detention, according to the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights. Many of them are believed to be held at al-Qala, the headquarters of the interior ministry in Manama, capital of the Persian Gulf island state.
One of the released detainees, Abduljalil al-Singace, a professor of engineering at the University of Bahrain, said: “The British government bears a heavy responsibility for the repression in Bahrain. What we have here is an apparatus of torture that was formed and instructed by British security personnel.”
Many detainees and opposition spokesmen believe that British personnel continue to be involved in the policies and practices of Bahrain’s secret police, the Security and Intelligence Service (SIS). They point out the methods of interrogation are “identical” to those used during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s when the SIS was headed by British police officer Ian Henderson, believed to still reside in Bahrain and act as a personal adviser to the king.
Henderson, in his late 80s, is notorious among Bahraini opposition groups, who label him “torturer-in-chief”. He has been the subject of torture allegations in the past by Amnesty and Human Rights Watch. British parliamentarians, including Lord Avebury, George Galloway and Jeremy Corbyn, have called on the British government for his prosecution over alleged involvement in gross maltreatment of Bahraini prisoners, some of whom died in custody.
Singace was among those rounded up last August prior to national elections. As with the other detainees, he was accused of, but not formally charged with, plotting acts of terrorism. He denies this and said the only thing he is “guilty of” is publicly criticising the regime.
During his detention, he says he was kept in solitary confinement, beaten on the head and body, and blindfolded for long periods. Suffering from childhood polio, 38-year-old Singace uses crutches at all times. He was forced to stand continuously for several days by his captors and, when he collapsed, was beaten and forced to resume standing. At one point, his interrogators threatened they would bring his wife, daughter and sister to the jail and rape them in front of him.
Singace said: “We are calling on the European Court of Human Rights to hold the British government to account for the inhumane repression in Bahrain.
“British citizens have been involved in the most barbaric treatment of innocent civilians with the knowledge and consent of the British government.”
Most the conditions claimed by Singace during his seven months of incarceration were reiterated independently by the other former detainees. In addition, some spoke of how they were electrocuted on the genitals.
One man said he was raped by the guards with a glass bottle. Others said they were hung by the hands and feet “like animals” and beaten with hard rubber hoses.
Over and over, the detainees invoked the name of the former head of state security, Henderson, as the ultimate author of their torturous conditions. Their claims of maltreatment were said by older former detainees to be identical to what they had suffered during previous periods of repression.
One Shia political activist, aged 58, who gave his name only as Muhammad, said he had personally encountered Henderson. Muhammad, who was detained without trial for almost five years during the 1970s, said: “The repression and torture used by the Bahraini regime is largely the work of Ian Henderson. But it wasn’t just Henderson. The entire security apparatus of this country was commanded by Henderson and British officers. The Bahraini regime inherited the torture apparatus from the British who continued to run it after independence. The people who are doing the torture now were instructed and trained by British officers and their system of torture is very much in practice today.”
Henderson, who was awarded the George Cross for quashing the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya during the 1950s, was installed by the British government as head of security in Bahrain in 1968 when the country was a British protectorate and being challenged by a mainly Shia independence movement. Older Bahraini activists recalled there was a sharp spike in repression and maltreatment of prisoners in the years following Henderson’s appointment. He held the role for 30 years. In 1986 – after tens of thousands of Bahrainis had been through the prison system, many claiming horrific maltreatment – Henderson was awarded the CBE in the UK’s honours list.
Muhammad said: “Britain imposed the al-Khalifa regime on the people of Bahrain and schooled these rulers in how to suppress our people trying to achieve democracy and freedom. The British and the monarchy here enjoyed the oil wealth of this country, while we have been treated like slaves – and to keep us like slaves, our rulers have relied on British repressive know-how.
“They have used British divide-and-rule sectarian policies between Shia and Sunni and they have criminalised Shia people who have simply been demanding their democratic rights for many decades.” Muhammad added that Bahrain, which is also described by Washington as “an important ally”, was just another example of how “western governments have employed dictators throughout the Middle East to crush people”. These western governments are now being exposed for their “criminal use of dictators”.
“Everywhere the British and American governments have been involved, we see the same torture methods. Northern Ireland, Bahrain, Iraq, Afghanistan,” he said. “This is the reality behind their claims of supporting democracy and human rights.”