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The House of Commons, United Kingdom

George Galloway MP

Bahrain Adjournment Debate, 3 June 1997

Madam Speaker,

May I begin by warmly congratulating the Minister of State upon his appointment . He will know that I predicted High office for him when I served under his as a humble foot-soldier on an obscure Bill in the Committee room corridor some years ago. He has not disappointed me.

With his progressive record and his deep and genuine commitment to liberty around the world, he will form part of Labour Foreign Office which I believe, will be a beacon of hope for the powerless and the downtrodden in all countries. The Government have started in such an inspiring way on the domestic as well as the international scene and nothing I shall say this evening should be taken by him any kind of criticism.

Rather, I want to probe the way in which the government intends to practice in its policy towards Bahrain what the Foreign Secretary so eloquently preached in the Foreign Office Mission Statement which has resounded to this country’s credit all around the world.

I am well aware that no country’s foreign policy can afford to be entirely selfless and the first priority of any government is to the well being of its own citizens, its own economy, its own strategic interests. But as the Foreign Secretary rightly pointed out, we all of us, are citizens of the world and misery and turmoil in one place inevitably has consequences for the rest of us.

One such area is Bahrain. Since the Amir ordered the suspension of the Constitution in August 1975 and closed down the Parliament, extreme unrest has enveloped the island. Repression, arbitrary arrests, torture, forceable exile and the shooting down of peaceful demonstrators demanding nothing more than the restoration of their Parliament.

In 1994, a petition signed by more than 25,000 people, Sunni and Shi’ite, men and women, people of the left, right and centre was to be presented to the Amir. Routine you might think. The response of the government was far from routine; the leader of the popular movement were arrested as were thousands of others, followed by more repression, more deaths under torture and further exile. Indeed, Bahrain became the first country in the world to deport its own citizens and then demand that other countries refuse to give them asylum. In January 1995, I met three of these – a most unique class of deportee – here in the Parliament where I hosted a press conference for them. The last person to speak to them as they boarded the plane into exile was a British Security agent working under Colonel Ian Henderson, a man at the very heart of the darkness in Bahrain, and to whom I shall return later in my speech.

No sooner had these deportees arrived here when the Bahraini Foreign Minister flew to London to demand, successfully to date, that the three be denied political asylum. I know the Minister of State is aware that those interested in Human Rights in this country, and indeed the Bahraini people themselves, are watching closely now to see the outcome of the claims for asylum by Sheikh Ali Salman, Sheikh Hamza al-Dairi and Sayed Haider al-Sitri.

And my first request this evening is that the Minister draws to the attention of our Rt Hon friend the Home Secretary, the keen interest in this asylum application and the need for its fair swift adjudication.

Torture is common place in Bahrain, of that there can be no doubt. The Minister’s predecessor the former member for Richmond and Barnes several times said in response to me and other Members, that they had raised the issue of the abuse of prisoners with the Bahraini authorities.

The US State Department, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other international Human Rights organisations have all produced veritable mountains of documented evidence of such abuse and torture. I know that my Honourable friend too has raised these concerns with the Bahrainis in the past, and more recently. But I have to ask him an obvious question;

If in the teeth of all this evidence, all this international opprobrium, all these expressions of concern from his predecessor and from himself, the Bahraini people are still being shot like dogs in the streets by British Mercenary led security forces, still being abused on the torture tables in the dungeons of the regime, then has not the time come when merely raising concerns is not enough? Thanks to the new Labour Foreign Office Mission Statement we have an opportunity to move beyond mere rhetoric towards practical, intentionally coordinated measures to bring pressure to bear on persistent and unheeding offenders against basic Human Rights, of whom Bahrain is undoubtedly one. It is very clear that the Bahraini dictatorship is nervous about our Rt Honourable friend’s Mission Statement. This can be measured for example, by the intensification of contacts sought by the Bahrainis. It won’t have escaped my Honourable Friend’s notice that the very first visitor from the Arabian Gulf to arrive on his own doorstep was the Bahraini Minister of Transport, nor will he have missed, in the respected Arabic Daily Al-Hayat, the photograph of the son of the Crown Prince, and Grandson of the Amir – it’s not so much a one party State, Madam speaker, it’s more a family business – with the Secretary of State for Defence, our Rt Honourable Friend the Member for Hamilton, at their meeting last week.

This report has the Bahraini Minister reviewing the deep relations between this country and Bahrain in particular our security and defence cooperation. I do not believe I would be the only person to be grateful if the Minister of State could elaborate this evening on just precisely what are the security and defence arrangements between our two countries. How deep are they? And how are they affected by the self-evident arrogant refusal by the Bahraini dictators to listen to their friends in Britain?

I am not alone in wishing to know what safeguards have been built into that cooperation to ensure that no equipment, no training and British personnel are used in anyway against the civilian population of Bahrain.

After all, Madam Speaker, even previous government whose Mission Statement was deafening in its silence about human rights had very clear safeguards, in the sale of Hawk Trainer aircraft to the government of Indonesia for example.

I am not asking for the cancellation of British – Bahraini defence cooperation and neither for that matter are the leaders of the Bahrain opposition in exile in London, one of whose distinguishing characteristics is its moderation.

However, despite its moderate and peaceful character, it has been brought to my attention, and I suspect to the attention of my Honourable Friend, that the movements of the London-based opposition are now being monitored by agents of the regime. I would, therefore ask my Honourable friend if he would take this opportunity to can assure the House of the Government’s commitment to their well being while here in exile?

The Bahraini opposition is not asking for a change of government in Bahrain. It is not asking for the overthrow of the Amir. It is not asking for itself to form the Government in Bahrain. It is not even asking for full Westminster style parliamentary democracy. All that it is asking for is that the Amir restores the Bahraini Constitution which he suspended in 1975.

And so my next request to the Minister of State is that he places clearly on record this evening that it is the wish of Her majesty’s Government, He Majesty’s Labour Government, that the suspended constitution be reinstated in Bahrain.

As an interim measure I believe that we should impress upon` the regime the urgent need to begin dialogue with the opposition. The political leaders must be released; in particular Sheikh Al-Jamri, without whom no such dialogue could possibly be achieved. I believe that my Honourable friend should cause our Ambassador in Bahrain himself to meet with the opposition, both as a sign of our own support for human rights and constitutional government, but also to send a clear message to the Bahraini Government that we mean business when we raise our concerns with them.

There is ample precedent for this; in dictatorships all over the world past and present our officials maintain regular contact and dialogue, if only for information purposes with those struggling for basic human rights in their own countries. What reason would there be for not doing so in Bahrain?

Madam speaker, in the course of preparing for this debate I had the doubtful, because distressing, privilege of a visit by one of the victims of the repression to my office in Westminster. I shall call him Mohammed. He is nineteen years old, and in another time or another place would have been a quite normal young student. He took off his shirt in my office to display a body hideously pock marked by gunshot. All over his back and down his left arm pieces of shrapnel nestle under his agonised skin. His crime? To be in a demonstration of school students protesting at the refusal of the Amir to receive the petition I mentioned earlier. But Mohammed is merely one in thousands.

More than five thousand people on this tiny island have been detained in just the last three years. At least 1,500 such detainees remain without trial in jail undergoing or fearing torture.

Many are held under the infamous State Security Law which empowers the Minister of the Interior to order the detention of political suspects for up to three years without charge.

Such trials as have been held are frequently taken by the State Security Court, often in camera. In these trials evidence usually rests solely on confessions extracted from defendants under torture. No appeal is allowed against its rulings and more importantly death sentences passed by this court are subject to no appeal either.

The Bahraini government promised the previous British Government that it would cease to use the State Security Court for such trials. They have broken that promise and continue to use the SSC until today. I am sure the Minister will agree with me that Bahrain’s State Security Court is an affront to all international norms of justice and should be suspended immediately?

According to a report in the Guardian on May 1`3th, a detainee was tortured in Bahrain in a dungeon fitted out with British supplied torture equipment. Has the Government had time yet to investigate this? If not, will the Minister now undertake so to do? And if it transpires that this torture equipment did originate in this country will the Minister refer the matter to our Rt Honourable friend the Attorney General, with a view to the prosecution of the British companies involved?

Now Madam Speaker, I said that I would return to the individual who is at the very heart of the darkness of the Bahraini regime. I am sad to say a British citizen, and sadder still to say a Scotsman – Colonel Ian Henderson.

Henderson might have walked from the fevered pages of a Graham Greene novel. He was an interrogator of the Mau Mau during colonial rule in Kenya in the bitter struggle for independence. So brutally efficient were his methods that upon obtaining independence Jomo Kenyata tried to reengage him in his own security apparatus. But so notorious was he that a demonstration was mounted by his victims, and the whole affair became so scandalous that Kenyata was forced to deport him. And so via, Ian Smith’s Rhodesia, he ended up the right hand man of the Al-Khalifa. He is known in the Gulf as the “Butcher of Bahrain”. He is the Head of the Security Services and Director of Intelligence, and he has gathered around him the kind of British dogs of war – mercenaries – whose guns and electric shock equipment are for hire to anyone who will pay the price.

Madam Speaker, it has been common place for previous British Ministers to brush off criticism of Henderson with the claim that they have “no responsibility: for his actions. But I don’t believe that is entirely true; after all this House rightly made it possible to pursue, try and punish British sex tourists who pollute the Philippines and Thailand with their paedophile proclivities. How much more then have we a responsibility to similarly pursue people who torture and murder for money and who carry Her Majesty’s passports.

This House made it possible to try people here for war crimes they committed in the Ukraine or Belorussia over fifty years ago, and rightly so. I have legal advice that says the United Nations Convention Against Torture places an obligation on Britain to arrest or extradite Henderson. The Noble Lord Avebury has said in another place, that should Henderson return here, having eaten his fill at the trough of the dictatorship, that he will face a battery of civil actions for damages from victims of his crimes.

But that is not enough. Ian Henderson is Britain’s Klaus Barbie. The European Parliament itself has called upon Britain to prosecute Henderson. But there is another fundamental point which cannot be gain said about Henderson’s provenance.

Britain’s relations with this island are warm and close and special and have been for a hundred and fifty years. Ian Henderson was appointed as Deputy Director of Security on the island in 1966, five whole years before the British left and the territory became independent. Ian Henderson was therefore, appointed by a British Government – I regret to say – by a British Labour Government, to his position in the secret State apparatus of Bahrain.

Madam Speaker, of course the Minister would be right to say that Ian Henderson is not an employee of ours and therefore, has nothing to do with us. That is true up to a point. But the Minister must know that that is not how it looks to the man on the torture table looking up at him. It’s not how it looks to the demonstrators falling in the streets in a hail of gunfire directed by him. And it is not how it looks to the wailing families as they bury their dead, killed by Henderson’s forces for the crime of demanding democratic reform.

Madam Speaker, I believe we as a people have a clear duty to repudiate the conduct of one of our citizens in the service of a foreign power who stands condemned of crimes against humanity.

Madam Speaker, I hope I have done enough in this debate this evening to make the case that while of course we must continue to do business and engage constructively in the business of Bahrain, and to offer them help and assistance to build out of autocracy, it cannot be on the same basis as before.

The Bahraini Government must know that Britain now has a government which means what it says and says what it means. A government which really believes in human rights and democracy.

Madam Speaker I bet to move.

Government Response – The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Derek Fatchett):

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member of Glasgow, Kelvin (Mr. Galloway) on introducing this short but important debate on human rights and the specific question of Bahrain. His interest not just in Bahrain but in the broader topic of human rights is well known. He has raised some specific issues. If my hon. Friend is agreeable to this, I should like to made a few general points about human rights deal with his specific questions and, I hope sum up by talking about our approach to Bahrain in the future.

There has been much interest in the House and elsewhere on the issue of human rights. My hon. Friend is right to point out that on a number of occasions, both in written and oral question, I have raised my concerns opposition and it is natural and important that what we have said in opposition should colour and shape our policies in government. Let me therefore give the first commitment to my hon. Friend; there will be continuity in terms of the values and approach that we adopt.

I remind my hon. Friend that in his speech on 12 May right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made it clear that this Government value an ethical dimension in their foreign policy and that we shall give substantial priority to human rights and try to pursue that agenda through international forums bilateral relationships and other means available to us.

In relation specifically to Bahrain, I have already had the opportunity to meet the Bahraini ambassador. My hon. Friend referred to one or two items already in my diary and I suspect that he may have some predictions s to future meetings. I took the opportunity of that meeting to raise our concern about human rights. I stressed a number of issues. Our discussion was frank and the atmosphere was one in which it was possible for me to engage in a constructive dialogue, which I was keen to do.

I welcomed recent visits to Bahrain by representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross, but I also strongly emphasised to the Bahraini ambassador that transparency in human rights is crucial. I emphasised the need for Amnesty International or any similar organisation to be involved in monitoring the situation closely. I shall continue to take up that commitment and I have suggested to the ambassador that it might be a sensible approach for him and his Government to get in touch with Amnesty International.

I give a clear commitment to my hon. Friend and to others who have taken a keen interest in the matter that when we feel that there is a need to address these issues with the Bahraini authorities we shall not hesitate to do so constructively. I will talk about our overall approach in relation to human rights, but I can say to my hon. Friend that our commitments are clear and our style and approach will be clear, not just on this issue, but on others as well.

Last week, when I was in the middle east, I was asked about the Government’s approach to human rights. I said at that stage that our approach would not be a la carte; it is a universal principle that we are trying to promote and we will promote it in each case and take each opportunity.

May I raise one issue that I thought my hon. Friend much publicity with regard to the treatment received by Sheikh Abdul Amir Al-Jamri, a senior Shia cleric and spiritual leader who has remained in detention in Bahrain since January 1996. The Government of Bahrain have always stated that allegations such as those about the lack of family visits and the sheikh’s maltreatment were unfounded. In my recent meetings with the Bahraini ambassador I addressed that question. I have been assured that Al-Jamri was in good health, that there was access to medical attention whenever he needed it and that he was visited by his family on a regular basis. This is an area on which I pressed for openness and transparency because the best way for the Bahraini authorities to remove fears about Al-Jamri and others is to have independent international monitoring of the human rights regime, Amnesty International or any other organisation with a similar reputation could play a valuable part in that.

My hon. Friend raised some important specific issues and I shall try to address the six main points raised in his speech.

I can assure my hon. Friend that the asylum applications are under consideration. Naturally, they are confidential between the parties concerned. I the circumstances, it would not be appropriate for me to comment on the details, but I will ensure that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is aware of the views expressed by my hon. Friend.

There was also the question of whether defence equipment exports would be used in internal repression in Bahrain. I remind the House that on 22 May my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary announced the initiation of an urgent review of the detailed criteria used in licence applications for the export of conventional weapons. New criteria will be made available to the House as soon as that review is completed. We will then look closely at any evidence that British companies within our jurisdiction may be involved in supplying materials or expertise for the purposes of torture or any other human rights violations. I give my hon. Friend that clear commitment.

That clear commitment applies also to the points that my hon. Friend made about the article in The Guardian on 13 May. He will appreciate that I am not in a position to comment on the specific allegations, simply because we do not have the material on those allegations. However, if my hon. Friend or anyone else is able to provide that material, we will look int the points made. We shall certainly investigate the matter further on the basis of the article in The Guardian, I assure my hon. Friend that I shall be writing to him in the near future with our response to the points made.

My hon. Friend also raised the question of the safety of Bahraini exiles in the United Kingdom. Over the past year or so, I have had the opportunity to meet some of the Bahraini exiles and some of those leading the Bahraini opposition. I share my hon. Friend’s view that those responsible for the opposition in this country are moderate people with a moderate set of demands. Therefore, we would be concerned about the safety of any individual exile. We would view with the utmost concern any suggestion of a specific threat against anyone in the United Kingdom. Where specific complaints are brought to our attention or to the attention of any hon. Member, we will investigate them further. If there is any specific evidence in that respect, we will pursue the matter. We will give the utmost priority to the safety of those in exile here.

My hon. Friend referred to the state security court. One of the points that we have already stressed and will continue to stress to the Bahraini authorities is the need for due process of law in all criminal cases. That is an important element in any human rights regime and we shall continue to make that argument. My hon. Friend referred in some detail to the case of Mr. Ian Henderson and made a number of disturbing allegations in relation to the activities of Mr. Henderson. If those allegations are true, they would be viewed with great concern and dismay be Her Majesty’s Government. My hon. Friend talked about the possibility of legal action being taken against Mr. Henderson on his return. That is a matter for others. However, I wish to make it clear that action along the lines suggested in relation to Mr. Henderson. We deplore those actions if the allegations are true.

In the two minutes remaining to me, I want to consider Bahrain and the human rights points raised by my hon. Friend within the context of a more general view of the Government’s principles and the way in which we intend to promote human rights.

This country is entering a new period of foreign policy. Wherever I have travelled, and with whomsoever I have engaged in debate, there has been a tremendous interest in the Foreign Secretary’s remark that there should be an ethical dimension to foreign policy. That involves important tactical questions about how we pursue that ethical dimension. In the vast majority of cases, we will strive for a constructive engagement. We will do that with Bahrain. Putting it crudely, there are sticks and carrots and there are difficult tactical choices to be made. We will engage with Bahrain over a range of commercial, political and regional issues. That was the policy of the previous Government and we intend to continue it. Within that as an important agenda item, there will be discussion of human rights.

We have had a short but important debate tonight. It has been the first opportunity for this Government to talk about the new ethical dimension in foreign policy. I hope that my hon. Friend will see that there is a difference and that there are changes. I have attempted, in a way that I have not always notices in Adjournment debates, to answer the specific questions raised- Mr. Gallaway: It has never happened before.

Mr. Fatchett: Indeed, it may never have happened before. I hope that, in that sense, I have set two precedents – the moral dimension to foreign policy and answering questions in an adjournment debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes to eleven o’clock.

Report from PA New on 3 June 1997:

By Parliamentary Staff, PA News

The Government was urged tonight to denounce a British citizen described in the Commons as “the Butcher of Bahrain”.

The call came from Labour’s George Galloway (Glasgow Kelvin) as he launched a short late-night debate on Britain’s policy towards Bahrain. Mr Galloway, who attacked the human rights record of the ruling regime on the Gulf island group, said the figure “at the very heart of the darkness” there was a Scotsman called Colonel Ian Henderson.

“He is known in the Gulf as `the Butcher of Bahrain’. He is head of the security services and director of intelligence, and he has gathered around him the kind of British dogs of war — mercenaries — whose guns and electric shock equipment are for hire to anyone who will pay the price.”

It had been commonplace for Tory ministers in the previous Government to claim they had no responsibility for the actions of a British citizen abroad like Ian Henderson, said Mr Galloway.

“But I don’t believe that is true. After all, this House rightly made it possible to pursue and punish British sex tourists who pollute the Philippines and Thailand with their paedophile proclivities.

“How much more, then, have we a responsibility to similarly pursue people who torture and murder for money and who carry our passports.” Dubbing Ian Henderson “Britain’s Klaus Barbie”, Mr Galloway declared: “The Government has a clear duty to repudiate the conduct of one of our citizens in the service of a foreign power who stands condemned of crimes against humanity.”

Replying to the debate, Foreign Office Minister Derek Fatchett said Mr Galloway had raised a number of distressing allegations about Colonel Henderson.

“If these are true they would certainly be viewed with great concern and dismay by Her Majesty’s Government.”

Mr Fatchett said he had met the Bahrain ambassador recently and had raised the country’s human rights record with him at that time. “I stressed a number of issues, our discussion was frank and the atmosphere was one in which it was possible for me to engage in a constructive dialogue.”

The minister stressed the Labour Government was putting the emphasis on a “moral dimension” to foreign policy and would be pursuing human rights issues wherever possible.

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