The discussion about the role played by British officers in carrying out torture in Bahrain tends to focus on Colonel Ian Henderson. However, British officials in Bahrain were torturing long before Ian Henderson’s arrival in the late sixties. Indeed, torture at the hands of the police has been occurring in Bahrain since the birth of the police force in the 1920s. Most of the information here is taken from the diary of Charles Belgrave, who was financial adviser to the Ruler of Bahrain from 1926-1957. All the stories here involve either Belgrave or Captain L.S. Parke, the Commandant of the Bahrain Police from 1927 – 1931.
Generally speaking, torture occurred during the investigation of relatively high profile incidents, such as the assassination attempt on the Shaykh, the shooting of the Political Agent, and the raid on police offices. This ties in with a lot of the scholarship on repression, which finds that repressive measures tend to increase when elites feel threatened. Having said that, I am sure it occurred a lot more frequently than is documented by Belgrave. While some might say ‘but those were different times’, it is interesting to note that Belgrave himself acknowledges the barbarity of such tortuous methods.
Oriental Methods, and those of a Mild Spanish Inquisition
On 4th August 1926, Ismail Shah Murad, a Baluchi sepoy of the Levy Corps, shot and killed fellow Levies Subedar Niaz Ali Khan and Havaldar Nuur Daad (Al-Tajjir, 1987).* After Major Daly (the British Political Agent) intervened, Ismail stabbed him five times with a bayonet. In the end, and in line with British suspicion of Bolshevik agents that was common at the time, a Mullah from the Russian Persian frontier was found guilty of masterminding the affair and deported (although Belgrave doubted his complicity in the case). During the course of the investigation, Belgrave admits to using methods of a ‘mild Spanish Inquisition’:
Paid out the men. Really they are not such a bad looking crowd, I believe only three or four of them were affected but Daly wants them to go bag & baggage,yet I’m sure that wont be sanctioned. Arrested another of the men who I really believe knew all about it, but though we used methods of amild Spanish Inquisition we could get nothing out of him. I felt sorry for the boy. (Belgrave, Belgrave Diaries, 15 August 1926)
During the late twenties, the police were investigating a raid on the town of Sanabis. Captain L.S. Parke used sleep deprivation methods in order to make one of the suspects speak:
Parke looked in very excited as he thinks he has got one of the men who was in the raid on Senobis two years ago. The Police have been after him ever since. The difficulty will be to make his talk. This is such a civilised place that one cant do even mild torture but P’s idea is to keep him from sleeping for a few nights and then he may talk, that is not exactly torture. (Belgrave, Belgrave Diares, 12 Novemeber 1928)
In 1926 there was an assassination attempt on Shaykh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, the Ruler of Bahrain. Ibrahim bin Khalid bin Ali Al Khalifa was found guilty of carrying out the attack, though I am inclined to think Hamad’s brother was behind it (Read here for more on this. The fact information was extracted from suspects under duress perhaps strengthens my argument that it may not have been Ibrahim bin Khalid.) In the course of the investigation, ‘oriental methods were used’: Read on for more details:
They were taking the case of the attempt on the Shaikh. The men admitted that it had been ordered by Shaikh Khalid a near relation of the Shaikhs. Barrett wrote officially to the Shaikh telling him of his various relations who were implicated in the murders but the Shaikh does not dare to do anything about them. It makes me really very angry. Barrett spoke about the business of the Police having used rather oriental methods with the prisoners to get them to give evidence. Parke ordered it and Barrett is very angry with him, one thing they did was to tie the men up and then put lighted papers between their toes. Of course it is a pity that it came out, but knowing the men and what they have done I dont feel much compunction for them, It is a pity that Parke took part in it himself (Belgrave, Belgrave Diaries, 16 April 1929)
In 1932, during Bahrain’s economic recession brought about by the collapse of the pearling industry, a group of divers broke into the police station to release a fellow diver who had been imprisoned some days earlier. In order to find the ringleaders, Belgrave beat some of the suspects, a procedure he noted as being ‘barbarous and illegal’:
Prior came over and we composed a long telegram to the P.R. reporting the matter,then Haji Sulman came in and after some time I went with him up to the Fort where I spent the whole morning till two oclock interrogating the prisoners, at first they wouldnt speak but I beat a few of them till they did speak,it was all very barbarous and illegal but on some occasions one has to behave illegally. They gave me the information that I needed and on that I was able to make a list of the names of the men who were the ringleaders and who actually broke into the Police Office and took the man out. (27 May 1932)
* Historian Al-Tajjir puts the date as 1st August, though I believe this is the date when another policeman tried to kill Hajji Salman bin Jasim, the head of the police.