How a British policeman helped normalise torture in a Gulf monarchy

As two political prisoners face execution in Bahrain, the country’s repressive justice system remains rooted in the career of Ian Henderson – one of the most notorious police officers the British empire ever produced, who caused suffering to scores of Bahrainis including members of my family.

14 September 2020

Ian Henderson is confronted by a Bahraini opposition activist at Heathrow airport in 2007. (Photo: Sa’id Shehabi)

In July, Bahrain’s highest court rejected the final appeals of Mohammed Ramadan and Husain Moosa who now face execution for killing a policeman. Bahrain has executed five political prisoners in the past few years, most recently in July 2019.

Ramadan, who was arrested in 2014, says he was tortured by Bahraini security agencies. When he would not confess, Moosa was taken in and tortured until he implicated Ramadan. 

Amnesty International states that the two men face execution “following a grossly unfair trial that relied heavily on torture-tainted ‘confessions’”.

The modern roots of Bahrain’s repressive security state go back to 1966 when Anthony Parsons, a senior British colonial official, persuaded Sheikh Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa, the young ruler of Bahrain, to hire British colonial officer Ian Henderson and make him head of intelligence. 

A small oil-rich archipelago between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Bahrain was then effectively part of the British empire.

Henderson had previously proved his worth in Britain’s then colony of Kenya, where the Kikuyu people had formed the Land and Freedom Army, an underground movement also known as the Mau Mau, which sought to end British colonial rule. 

By the early 1950s London responded with brute force, forcing some 1.5 million people, nearly the entire Kikuyu population, into detention camps which have been termed “Britain’s Gulag”.

Henderson, then a Special Branch intelligence officer, became one of Britain’s most prized assets in the war, helping to capture and “turn” Mau Mau generals and develop “pseudo-gangs” of former Mau Mau fighters to battle against their former comrades.

His greatest success for Britain was the capture of Dedan Kimathi, the last significant Mau Mau general, in 1956. Henderson was not present in the field that day, as he was in Nairobi entertaining a visit by Princess Margaret, the Queen of England’s sister. Kimathi was subsequently given a show trial and hanged.

A statue of Dedan Kimathi in Nairobi, Kenya (Photo: Murungaru / Creative Commons)

General Gerald Lathbury, the commander-in-chief of British forces in East Africa from 1955-60, said: “Ian Henderson has probably done more than any single individual to bring the emergency to an end.” 

A political amnesty intended to paper over the traumas of the Mau Mau uprising meant Henderson was never brought to justice, but after independence in 1963, the new Kenyan government deported him.

Henderson arrived in Bahrain a few years later amid turmoil. Following an intense anti-colonial protest movement in the 1950s, a new wave of student activism was now threatening the regime under the banner of leftist movements, among them the National Liberation Front (NLF). 

In March 1965, the year before Henderson arrived, Bahraini nationalists almost killed the British chief of police, Bob Langdale, using a car bomb. Life-changing injuries forced Langdale to retire.

To ensure a similar incident could not occur, Henderson began to build a secret intelligence apparatus in Bahrain virtually from scratch, to ensure a state of fear.

Eliminating the National Liberation Front

“He thought that if he repeated what he did in Kenya, he’d be successful,” says Abdulhadi Khalaf, who was a member of the NLF in the 1960s and 1970s, and is today an academic at Lund University in Sweden.

“When he came, there were still people in detention from the 1965 uprising. There was a pool from which he could select potential infiltrators,” says Khalaf. “They gave him an immeasurable number to select from and he was successful.”

Henderson got to work fast, deploying the same techniques of “recruiting” turncoats to fight his battles. Dissidents were hauled in, beaten and turned against their comrades.

Although there was nominally a police commandant, Jim Bell, who was recruited alongside Henderson and who stayed in Bahrain until the 1990s, it was widely recognised that Bell had no rein over Henderson, whose Special Branch took on a mythic reputation.

The British Foreign Office lauded Henderson’s work as “virtually irreplaceable”. Activists, says Khalaf, warned each other that, “Even in the sky, there are clouds” meaning that the regime had ways to discover what dissidents were planning. By the end of the 1960s, the NLF was completely penetrated.

Dr Abdulhadi Khalaf. (Photo: Bahrain Mirror / Creative Commons)

However, there were limits to Henderson’s power and his reputation nearly crashed around him in December 1973, after Bahrain held its first parliamentary elections since gaining independence from Britain two years earlier.

There were no legal political parties and the NLF was still an underground movement. Henderson passed intelligence to the rulers to the effect that NLF-aligned candidates would win just a seat or two. 

But, on the day of the election, the NLF-aligned leftist, urban bloc unexpectedly joined forces with a religious, rural bloc and together swept 16 of the 30 parliamentary seats, forming an assembly with the opposition in a majority. 

Khalaf was one of the leftists elected. “That we won so much was a shock to the intelligence service,” says Khalaf. 

The day after the elections, Henderson was summoned by Bahrain’s prime minister and brother to the ruler, Khalifa bin Salman, who demanded to know how this had happened. It could have been a career blow to Henderson, who could have left Bahrain at this time. However, he hung on.

The new Parliament opposed many neo-colonial policies in Bahrain, including the country’s hosting of a US naval fleet, which increased its presence in the Gulf as British ships partially withdrew from “East of Suez”.

Henderson’s opportunity to reassert the authority of the Bahraini state came in 1974 when the ruler, Sheikh Isa, illegally enacted a state security law while Parliament was in recess. This new law, among many other draconian measures, allowed detention without charge for up to three years on a renewable basis.

For a secret policeman like Henderson, this was a gift. When MPs tried to block the law, Sheikh Isa suspended the constitution and dissolved parliament in 1975.

Watershed moment for Bahrain

The collapse of Bahrain’s democratic experiment within four years of independence was a coup for the absolute monarchy. Henderson’s Special Branch was rebranded the Security and Intelligence Services (SIS) and the Bahraini security forces soon expanded, with Henderson at the helm.

Khalaf was one of the first people arrested after the state security law came into effect. As a former MP, he was a well-known leftist activist. “During that period I met Henderson,” Khalaf told me. “The first time, I was taken from my cell to his office. I thought they would interrogate me, but it was a social visit. Henderson’s wife [who worked as his secretary] came with a cup of tea and served us.

“Henderson talked for a half hour and then I was sent back. During this meeting, I asked him ‘what am I here for’? He said, ‘I have nothing to do with this, it’s the prime minister’s order.’” Khalaf continued, “Many of the things that are done are not according to Henderson’s liking and this included my arrest.” 

Yet, Henderson oversaw Khalaf’s solitary confinement and 90 days of detention without trial. When Khalaf met Henderson a second time in 1976, after another arrest and release, Henderson approached him as he sat at his usual café in Manama, Bahrain’s capital, and informed him that a NLF member’s home would be raided that night.

“I took it as a bizarre test of how I would respond to this information,” said Khalaf. Henderson was testing the waters, possibly seeing if Khalaf could be turned. In the event, the NLF member’s house was raided but the dissident was able to clear his home of documents.

Whatever Henderson said about being dissatisfied with what he was asked to do – a claim he repeatedly makes in his communications with the Foreign Office, where he presents himself as a moderating influence  – his actions tell a different and more complex story.

In the 1960s, British officers were directly involved in questioning detainees. Derek Franklin, a colonial police officer brought to Bahrain by Henderson, has told me of his work with a Bahraini called Yusuf, a feared police officer known for beating detainees, attests Khalaf. “Yusuf and I would interrogate – Yusuf would interrogate of course, I was listening”, Franklin told me.

Derek Franklin wrote a book about his experiences as a colonial policeman, (Photo: A Pied Cloak)

Franklin had served under Henderson in Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising and worked for him in Bahrain from 1955 until the pair eventually fell out in 1971 over the latter’s controlling and secretive behaviour.

When I spoke to him at his home in Ashford, Kent in 2013, he told me: “In the end, [Henderson] was not a man I could trust. You would tell him one thing and he would tell somebody else something else. A case in point was the arrest of 10 Palestinian expatriate teachers, most of whom were linked to their country’s mainstream Fatah political movement.

“Ian arrested the whole lot,” Franklin said, causing concerns from the sheikh who did not want to appear pro-Israel. But the police commandant, Jim Bell, defended Henderson, insisting the latter had sources indicating they were “up to no good”. 

But, Franklin recalled, “They weren’t. They were just ordinary members of Fatah which everyone accepted. All Palestinians would have some connection with it. They weren’t necessarily connected to any of the extremist ones. So Ian manipulated it: they were dangerous people, they had to be got rid of.”

“How did I hear about this?” Franklin asked me rhetorically. “Ian tapped the telephone of the commissioner of the police, Jim Bell. So he heard all the conversations between Sheikh Isa and Jim Bell… I know it because he invited me into his office one day and said, ‘Derek… I want you to listen to this.’

“He thought he was the king of his [domain],” says Franklin, as Henderson engineered scares to cement his usefulness to the regime. “He was in the process of building up an empire by imagining or presenting a threat that perhaps didn’t exist in the way he was presenting it.”

Britain and torture

Torture in Bahrain preceded Henderson. The Bahraini police force was set up in the 1920s and brutality was committed as early as then, when British officials personally engaged in what one of them called “methods of mild Spanish Inquisition”.

But after the 1974 state security law, and under Henderson’s watch, torture became systemic as a method of repressing dissent. Between 1975 and 1999 at least 37 Bahrainis were killed by the police, 15 of them in police custody suspected of having been tortured. Official autopsies attributed these deaths to natural causes or even suicide

Henderson’s ruthless reputation was cemented in the mid-1990s when an intifada (uprising) burst out as renewed demands for the reinstatement of Parliament were met by crushing police violence.

In 1995 alone, an estimated 4,000 people were arrested in relation to widespread protests, including children as young as 10 – a form of collective punishment recalling British methods of criminalising the Kikuyu population in Kenya decades earlier.

Many families were targeted by Henderson’s secret police, including my own. Leaders espousing peaceful opposition were arrested in 1995 and subjected to solitary confinement or house arrest. Protesters and activists were rounded up and tortured, and many of those who could fled into exile.

One torture survivor spoke to me anonymously about his experience. He states that an expatriate British officer was directly involved in his torture. First, Bahraini officers detained and threatened him to make him confess “the donkey’s way” – with torture. He insisted he had nothing to confess. 

The Bahraini officers forced him to stand for five days continuously and beat him with a hose whenever he tried to sit. When he was fully exhausted, they hung him up “like a chicken prepared for grill” and beat the soles of his feet – a torture technique called falaqa. These same techniques were employed against protesters during another uprising in 2011.

Thirty years on, his memories are still vivid. “I would cry and scream, ‘Please take me down and I would say whatever you want!’” 

“While I was laying on the floor, a British officer had come in. I said to myself, this was a golden chance. The British officer would not accept to let them torture an innocent person. His name was Brian. I used to hear Bahrainis calling him with this name. Unfortunately, he came and shouted at me, ‘Confess before it’s too late!’ I told him immediately, I did nothing. I was really shocked when he asked them to take me up and repeat the falaqa. Later I knew that he was the master and the Bahrainis followed his instruction.”

The man was Brian Shore, who had worked with Ian Henderson in Kenya and, together with Derek Franklin, had been recruited to Bahrain by Henderson. Unlike Franklin, who left in 1971, Shore stayed in Bahrain for more than 20 years.

Abdulhadi Khalaf states that by the end of the 1970s, the senior British officers were increasingly distancing themselves from interrogations, opening the space for more brutal questioning and a culture of plausible deniability about the extent of British involvement in torture. But this testimony from the 1990s suggests otherwise. 

Such traumatic experiences are not unique; hundreds of Bahrainis have suffered arrest and torture while executions have taken place after unfair trials. In 1996, for example, 29-year-old Isa Qambar was executed after a court found him guilty of killing a police officer. In an echo of the current death row cases, Amnesty International voiced fears that he was convicted based on confessions extracted under torture before his execution.

Isa Qambar was executed in 1996. (Photo supplied)

I asked Khalaf if Henderson’s legacy was exaggerated, and if other security officers should be spotlighted. Khalaf replied, “Henderson was the guru. His disciples, each of them brought in their own craft. But the basic training was from Henderson.”

He added, “He is the Butcher of Bahrain. Through him and his 34 years in Bahrain, the numbers killed were much less than those killed in the past 20 years. But the basic rules were established by Henderson.”

Painful legacy

Henderson finally retired in 1998. A year later, Sheikh Isa died and his son Hamad assumed the throne. Reforms were swiftly promised and an amnesty for political dissidents allowed my family to return from exile in London.

Yet, the amnesty was also extended to members of the security services, so just as in Kenya, Henderson would not be brought to justice. In London, activists and torture survivors brought a case to the Metropolitan Police against Henderson, but it fell apart when the Bahraini government refused to release any records.

All this gave Henderson great comfort. “[His] self-importance was so high that he could stop anyone driving around him, like a sheikh, no one could overtake him,” says Khalaf, “And he didn’t trust others – his wife was his secretary right up until he retired.”

“He did what he liked, when he liked,” Franklin reflected, adding, “And there was always the [Foreign Office’s] political agent he seemed to liaise with, and the UK security services.” 

Henderson’s power rested on his relationships with both the Bahraini and British authorities but it was in the interests of neither to prosecute Henderson who died peacefully in Bahrain in 2013.

Through Henderson, the British empire never truly left Bahrain and its neo-imperial legacy is still felt today. 

After Bahrain’s massive pro-democracy protests in 2011, which saw at least 51 deaths from police brutality, a former Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner, John Yates, was recruited to help reform the Bahraini police.

Following in Yates’ footsteps, Durham Police, the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the College of Policing and the University of Huddersfield have all helped train Bahraini officers in recent years. 

Bahrain’s Ombudsman and Special Investigation Unit – the two oversight bodies which consistently fail to investigate the alleged torture of political prisoners – have received training and support from the Foreign Office. More than £6.5-million in British taxpayers’ money has been spent on such assistance.  

That support has continued in lockstep with a new crackdown on dissent in Bahrain where human rights defenders and political opposition leaders are still behind bars today. Most recently, democracy activist Ali Al-Hajee was subject to torture by the police which has left him partially deaf and with permanent damage on his testicles and jaw. 

Today, more than 2,000 inmates, the majority political prisoners, are crowded into the notorious Jau Prison near Manama, according to the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy. Unsanitary conditions and systemic disregard for inmates’ health puts the inmates at significant risk should there be a coronavirus outbreak.

Torture and unfair trials in Bahrain are the product of a security service which is today run by Bahrainis but was created by Britain, which still helps to maintain it.