Ten years on from the Bahraini revolution, Shabbir Lakha looks at Britain’s role in supporting the violent repression of pro-democracy protesters
Following the successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, mass protests were spreading across the Middle East in February 2011. Bahrain, which had seen periodic uprisings against the ruling Al Khalifa monarchy that has governed the country with an iron fist for over 200 years and long oppressed its majority Shia population, was no exception.
Witnessing the electric scenes coming out of Tahrir Square, Bahraini organisers called a protest in solidarity with Egypt on the 4 February and a Day of Rage on 14 February. The date had been chosen to coincide with the ten year anniversary of the ‘National Action Charter’ which were supposed to be a series of reforms agreed by referendum that had put an end to the last uprising – and that had completely failed to materialise.
Watching fellow long-time dictators Ben Ali and Mubarak lose control and then fall from power, and knowing that protests were being planned in the capital Manama, Al Khalifa attempted to quell the protests before they began by offering to release child political prisoners and promising 1,000 Bahraini Dinars for every family. It didn’t work.
How the revolution unfolded
On 14 February, thousands of Bahrainis assembled in Pearl Roundabout in the capital Manama to make their demands for democracy and economic reform. They were immediately met with violence from the security forces which resulted in at least 30 injuries and one person being killed. The funeral for the victim the following day became a mass protest and security forces opened fire on the mourners, killing another person.
Thousands more joined the protest and they marched up to Pearl Roundabout and occupied it, calling it “Bahrain’s Tahrir Square”. Two days later security forces attacked and cleared the camp, killing another four protesters and injuring over 300. By this point, tanks and soldiers had been deployed across Manama.
Over the following month, the protests swelled in size, with an estimated 200,000 Bahrainis (40% of the country’s population) protesting on 23 February. The Pearl Roundabout was retaken and a subsequent attempt to clear it by security forces was successfully fought off. The General Federation of Workers Trade Unions in Bahrain called a general strike, and protests were now happening in most towns, villages and university campuses as well as neighbourhoods across Manama every day.
Failing to curb the protests, Bahrain appealed to the Gulf Cooperation Council for help. Promptly, 1,000 troops from Saudi Arabia and 500 troops from UAE were deployed to Bahrain on 14 March. They crossed the King Fahd causeway that connects Bahrain and Saudi Arabia in a convoy of tanks and helicopters. It was in essence an occupying force, sent in to crush the revolution.
As well as this, the Bahraini monarchy recruited some 2,500 ex-military officers from Pakistan to join the security forces and riot police. On 16 March, 5,000 troops and riot police encircled the Pearl Roundabout and violently removed all protesters. Al Salmaniya hospital was occupied by the army with the aim of identifying and arresting any injured protesters – and in the process denying them medical attention. Ambulances were captured by the army and health workers who tried to treat protesters were beaten and imprisoned.
The next day saw mass arrests of leading activists, opposition leaders and anyone considered remotely anti-government. The following day the Pearl Roundabout monument was demolished, and in the weeks after, whole towns and villages were placed under lockdown and 35 Shia mosques were destroyed.
The revolution was essentially quashed, but the people of Bahrain didn’t stand down easy. In the face of such violent repression powered by the strongest regional forces, they continued to protest. Daily protests continued in Bahrain for the next three years.
Violence, torture and political detention
The Western media had for a long time attempted to paint a picture of a sectarian conflict and of violent Iranian-backed protesters refusing to accept generous reforms. The claim of sectarian conflict deliberately obfuscated the fact that a significant section of the minority Sunni population was also involved in the uprising, and while discrimination against Shias was part of the catalyst for the protests, the demands were centred around democracy and social issues that affected Sunnis as well as Shias.
But for a while, even the mainstream media had to report the shocking violence that was being meted out indiscriminately against unarmed protesters. As well as using rubber bullets and live ammunition, a favourite weapon of the Bahraini security forces has been the bird shotgun which fires multiple pellets that get embedded in flesh. They proved lethal in a number of instances, but injuries from the pellets left untreated could be fatal, so were used to deliberately maim and then identify protesters.
Investigations by human rights organisations and groups like Physicians Without Borders found that the Bahraini forces were using concentrated and toxic teargas, made in the US and Israel, and were being fired into people’s homes and cars which had caused suffocation in a number of cases.
There was also overwhelming evidence of widespread torture and sexual assault of political prisoners. The use of torture went all the way to the top. Prince Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, nicknamed the "torture prince", said on state TV that anyone who called for the overthrow of the monarchy will be "held accountable" and that they have "nowhere to escape to". According to the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, he was directly involved in torturing detainees and one victim claimed his blindfold was removed so that he knew that it was the Prince torturing him.
As the President of Bahrain's Olympic Committee, Prince Nasser was in London in 2012. The CPS was given a dossier of evidence of his involvement in torture at the time, but Keir Starmer, then Director of Public Prosecutions, ruled that the Prince was immune from arrest. This decision was later proven to be wrong and overturned in a High Court.
Britain has a long and murky history of propping up the Bahraini regime. In 1966 they sent over Ian Henderson, a man credited with “doing more than any single individual” in crushing the Mau Mau resistance to British colonialism in Kenya and for which he was given an OBE and other medals, to help transform Bahrain’s security apparatus. His post there earned him the title of ‘Butcher of Bahrain’ for the torture and human rights abuses that happened under his command.
Days before the Saudi-led invasion and the crackdown on the protests, the UK’s top military officer General Sir David Richards, along with David Cameron’s national security adviser Peter Ricketts and the British ambassador and military attaché were holding meetings with Crown Prince Salman bin Khalifa and commander of the Bahrain Defence Force Khalifa bin Ahmed Al Khalifa.
This was followed by a visit from US defence secretary Robert Gates. They were open in the state media that they were there to support the monarch. It was later revealed by two diplomats that Hillary Clinton greenlighted the Saudi incursion in exchange for support from the GCC for a no-fly zone in Libya.
Following the 2011 uprising, the Al Khalifa regime’s own “Independent” Commission found evidence of torture and repression in the crackdown on protesters – without identifying any individuals at blame of course – and recommended a series of modest reforms. Britain subsequently spent £6.5m on “technical assistance” to improve the country’s human rights records and particularly on implementing the reforms. In 2013, David Richards became an adviser to the King.
Ten years on, those recommendations have been largely ignored. Prisons remain filled with political detainees kept in horrific conditions, often subjected to torture, and often denied medical treatment and family visits. Opposition leaders and human rights activists including Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja and Hassan Mushaima remain imprisoned. New laws have been introduced to outlaw opposition parties and there has been a significant uptick in the use of the death penalty with 51 people sentenced to death since 2011.
Despite this, Britain has played a role in maintaining Bahrain’s system of repression and has helped to launder the regime’s reputation. Britain has sold Bahrain over £115m in arms despite the temporary halt in arms sales in February 2011 amounting to an admission of knowledge that British made weapons were likely being used for internal repression as well as in the war on Yemen.
Before and since the 2011 uprising, the UK police have provided training to Bahraini police, and a Security Science Masters course offered in Bahrain by the University of Huddersfield has been implicated in use of torture.
Britain, and the Royal Family in particular, have also helped to whitewash the Al Khalifa ruling family’s image. King Hamad was invited to the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012, and was sat next to the Queen during her 90th birthday celebrations. David Cameron invited Prince Salman to Downing Street a mere two months after the uprising was quashed, and rolled out the red carpet for King Hamad two years later when it was clear protesters were still being attacked and imprisoned.
For several decades, the Al Khalifa family has “reclaimed land” (created new islands) in Bahrain which are then “gifted” to itself and then sold to private developers for huge sums. This money and oil profits have been heavily invested in the City of London. Together with Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar, the Gulf monarchies make up a huge portion of the FDI that comes into London, particularly in the housing market.
More importantly, located in the Persian Gulf, Bahrain holds a strategic position for the US and the UK in maintaining its military presence in the Middle East and in close proximity to Iran.
Bahrain is home to the US’s Fifth Fleet which is a key military installation in the Middle East and oversees US operations from Afghanistan to Somalia, and is used to “defend” Saudi Arabia and “deter” Iran. The US has expanded the base since 2011.
In 2018, Britain opened a naval base in Bahrain, the largest naval base outside the UK and the first permanent military base east of the Suez in fifty years. The £40m base, subsidised by the Bahraini monarchy, has been used to support the US-led bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria. The opening of the base was touted as Britain’s “return to the world stage”.
Apart from anything else, the unflinching willingness to help crush democratic aspirations and to aid gross human rights violations in Bahrain is a key example of why the concurrent and subsequent claims of “humanitarian intervention” have been pure fiction. It’s clear that Britain, as a junior partner to US imperialism, has only one priority in the Middle East – maintaining military might.
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Shabbir Lakha is a Stop the War officer, a People's Assembly activist and a member of Counterfire.
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