Detained in the Gulf? Britain will not protect you

Why Britain has always failed to protect its citizens from abuse in the Gulf
6 min read
16 Aug, 2019
Comment: In 2010, Briton Jaafar al-Hasabi was arrested and tortured in Bahrain. The FCO intervened but belatedly. The FCO's recent record suggests continued neglect and complicity, writes Lyndon Peters
Jaafar was subjected to physical and psychological torture [Author]
On this day in 2010, Jaafar al-Hasabi, a British-Bahraini citizen was arrested at the airport in Bahrain on his way home to the UK after a three-week holiday with his family to the country of his birth. 

The Bahraini authorities accused Jaafar, a peaceful political activist, of supporting terrorism. This false accusation has frequently been levelled at the thousands of peaceful opponents of the repressive Al Khalifa monarchy in Bahrain, including most recently footballer Hakeem al-Araibi.

Jaafar says he was subjected to physical and psychological torture over the five-and-a-half-month period in which he was detained.

By his account, he was placed in solitary confinement in a two-by-two metre basement cell where he was unable to sleep for 23 days on end, and had hallucinations due to the sleep deprivation. He says he was also tortured with electric shocks and endured beatings on the soles of his feet.

Statements from his lawyer and medical examinations from after his release have since corroborated his claims of torture.

The FCO and the UK embassy in Bahrain were reluctant to hold the Bahraini authorities to account for their mistreatment of Jaafar

Whilst Jaafar was being detained in Bahrain, back in London campaigners calling for his release urged the Foreign Office to intervene to secure Jaafar's return to the UK. But as Jaafar had travelled on his Bahraini passport this allowed the FCO to not immediately prioritise his case on a technicality.

Yet even after Jaafar had spoken with the British ambassador in Bahrain, the FCO initially said Jaafar did not ask "us to raise any concerns on his behalf at this time". 

But Jaafar has explained that in his first meeting with the British ambassador, the prison guards accompanied him so he could not explain that he was being mistreated out of fear that this stop him from being released.

His hopes of being released were soon dashed anyway, despite the fact that at one point prison staff brought him civilian clothes suggesting that he would soon be released, but this was just a trick.

In subsequent meetings with FCO representatives, Jaafar explained in detail that he was being tortured and showed them his bruises; however, the message that the FCO relayed remained that of the first meeting with Jaafar. This apparent attempt to hide the fact that Jaafar was being tortured suggests that the FCO and the UK embassy in Bahrain were reluctant to hold the Bahraini authorities to account for their mistreatment of Jaafar.

In other words, the UK was refusing to place human rights ahead of the extensive commercial and military ties it has with states like Bahrain. Jaafar does credit the intervention of the British ambassador in securing his release, but why did it take so long for this intervention to happen?

Read more:
From Thatcher to May: UK's 'shady relations' with UAE's authoritarian rulers are nothing new

A pattern of neglect and complicity

The UK has often claimed it prefers to solve such matters through back channels rather than embarrassing its allies such as Bahrain, the UAE and Saudi Arabia publically. But at what cost?

Indeed, Jaafar's traumatic experience is by no means an isolated case in the Gulf region. A prominent example is the case of Matthew Hedges in the UAE. The British PhD student from Durham University was falsely accused of being a British spy by the UAE authorities. He was interrogated for hours on end and forced to take medication to keep him awake and sedatives to put him to sleep.

Months after being released Hedges complained of still being dependent on this medication. Hedges has since claimed that the Foreign Office failed in their duty of care towards him and that they did not do enough to secure his release much earlier, prompting the FCO to launch an investigation into how the department handled the case.

Bahrain and the UAE are notorious for their abuse of human rights and particularly for their widespread use of torture on political prisoners. 

But the role of the UK in regard to these human rights abuses in its old protectorates in the Gulf deviates from wilful negligence on the one hand to outright complicity on the other.

Jaafar originally sought asylum in the UK in 1995 after an incident in which he was arrested by Bahraini authorities on the basis of his political activism.

Jaafar claims he had been interrogated by two British men allegedly working for Ian Henderson. Henderson, who has often been labelled 'The Butcher of Bahrain', served as Head of the Bahraini General Directorate for State Security Investigations from 1966 to 1998.

Today the UK continues to be involved in training Bahraini police officers at the Royal College of Policing with little regard to what this means for Manama's ongoing crackdown on dissent at home

This week marked 48 years since the British withdrawal from Bahrain on 14 August 1971, yet the harsh repression which characterised British imperial rule remains; after all 'The Butcher of Bahrain' kept his role despite the supposed British withdrawal.

Today the UK continues to be involved in training Bahraini police officers at the Royal College of Policing with little regard to what this means for Manama's ongoing crackdown on dissent at home.

The reopening of the HMS Juffair Naval Base in 2018 made it clear that the British withdrawal from Bahrain wasn't a meaningful one. After all it is not the people of Bahrain who prop up the Al Khalifa monarchy, instead, it is the UK, the USA and neighbouring states such as Saudi Arabia and UAE that enable Bahrain to ignore its masses calling for their rights and democracy.

The UK's 'back channels' are therefore little more than a fig leaf.

It is worth noting that before he took up his post in Bahrain Ian Henderson worked in Kenya as a British Colonial Police Officer during the brutal suppression of the Mau Mau rebellion.

In 2013, the crimes against humanity committed by the British Colonial Police in Kenya were unofficially acknowledged by the British government, who, in an out of court settlement, agreed to compensate the descendants of the Mau Mau rebels.

Whilst there any equivalent compensation for the victims of human rights abuses in Bahrain remains a tall order, Jaafar al-Hasabi and many others like him say they will continue to seek justice for the crimes perpetrated by the British-backed monarchy in Bahrain.

Lyndon Peters is an independent activist and researcher. His work focuses on the UK's relationship with the Gulf states. He has worked with human rights organisations on many issues relating to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE.

Follow him on Twitter @LyndonPeters01

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.