Did British Officials Hide Evidence of Torture in Bahrain?

The political murder that rocked Bahrain in November 1976 was one in which the police and political establishment acted in combination to cover up egregious acts of torture and killing. This article reveals that the British knew most details of the case, yet it is unclear if they used this information to affect any improvement in policing. In fact, the British officials in Bahrain worked to conceal the news from the British parliament. 

On the evening of 18th November 1976,  Sheikh Abdulla al-Madani, a former politician and editor of the weekly newspaper ‘Al-Mawaqef”, was found dead in a patch of desolate land near the village of Jidhafs in the North of Bahrain. He had been stripped, beaten, and stabbed to death. The police arrested three Bahraini men for the murder; Mohammed Taher Al Mahari (aged 19), Ibrahim Abdulla al-Marhoon (aged 25), Ali Ahmed Falah (aged 21). After interrogation, the three detainees  admitted that they were members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman and the Arabian Gulf (A left wing moment that operated in the Arabian Gulf at the time).

Despite initially arguing that they acted alone, the detainees later claimed that the murder had been ordered by three senior members of PFLOAG in Bahrain. These were; Ahmed Makki (aged 27), Abdul Amir Mansour (aged 24) and Muhammed Ghuloom Bucheeri (aged 28). They were also arrested. In addition to this, at least twenty-four other arrests were made, including the Bahraini leader of the Popular Front – Abdulla Mutaiwa. The investigation also revealed a PFLOAG cell in the Bahrain Defence Force (BDF). Among this group was Saeed al-Onawaiti, a young Bahraini poet. However, al-Owainati was never part of PFLOAG, but rather a member of the National Liberation Front.

Torture and deaths

The inmates were reportedly subject to to brutal torture, yet the British Ambassador was ‘assured’ that although ‘the interrogation was severe, it was by no means rough by Middle Eastern standards, and while the interrogation, could be regarded as having contributed to his death, it was not the proximate cause’.

Despite the best efforts of the guards to interrogate mildly (well, by Middle Eastern standards), Muhammed Ghuloom Bucheeri reportedly fell ill and later died due to a pre-existing condition – in this case asthma (as most commentators on Bahrain will know, people having been dying in police custody from organ failure and pre-existing conditions for decades). This ‘mild’ interrogation does not explain why Ghuloom was buried in a secret grave in Manama. To this day, the government still have not told the family the exact location of Muhammed’s grave.

Before Ghuloom had time to die, he apparently confessed to a broader terrorist plot planned by PFLOAG. The plans, allegedly directed by senior PFLOAG members in Baghdad, included attacks on ministers, journalists, economic targets, and even the hijacking of a Gulf Air flight.

Although Ghuloom died at the hands of the police, Sayeed al-Owainati was interrogated, tortured, and killed by the Bahrain Defense Force. Apparently, the already uneasy relations between the BDF and the police were heightened when the BDF inferred that the police had killed al-Owainati. The BDF also allowed al-Owainati’s family see the body and the ‘obvious signs of violence’ on it.

The BDF’s killing of al-Owainati was considered a state secret, and was never publicly admitted by the Bahraini government. Members of BDF PFLOAG cell were punished as follows; one was given life imprisonment, three were given twenty years, one was given eighteen years, one was given fifteen years, and three were acquitted.

Abdulla al-Madani and the motive

The British reports of the incident stress that the motives of the leftist PFLOAG agents were based on the fact Abdulla al-Madani was the editor of a right-wing newspaper with a pro-religious and pro-government line. However, this report and the alleged motives are not necessarily that straightforward, An American diplomatic cable described Al-Madani as, ‘a populist-style critic of the government and ruling family’ – a description that Bahraini sociologist Abdulhadi Khalaf described as a bit of an overstatement. The cable also states that Al-Madani was often in tactical alignment with the leftist bloc during his tenure as head of the Shia bloc in the National Assembly. (A perhaps more worrying note in this cable is that al-Madani had leftist tendencies in his youth, but was ‘cured’ after his arrest and interrogation in the early 60s).

Although it is certainly true that Al-Mawaqef generally adopted a pro-government line, Al-Madani did ruffle a few feathers. In 1975, he published an article that criticized  government attempts to surreptitiously get the religious bloc in the national assembly to support a secret meeting that would support postponing a debate about the controversial State Security Law.**** Al-Madani also upset the Americans in 1974, when he argued that the decision to station the US base in Bahrain should be subject to parliamentary debate. The Americans were naturally keen to finalize the base deal before it could be subject to public scrutiny. So while Al-Madani may have made enemies on the left, he certainly riled members of the government and the Ruling Family too. 

The evidence in the al-Madani case

Two days after the murder, the British reported in a telegram that the police had ‘no clue as to the perpetrators of the murder’. However, they mention in the same telegram that there were four aggressors and that they had Bahraini accents. Unless there is an error in the telegram, it seems one of the only reasonable explanations is that there were  witnesses who had spoken to/heard the accused yet could not determine who they were, and that these witnesses came forward between the time the murder was committed and between the time the telegram was sent. However, a Bahraini accent is not much to go on on. If only more witnesses would come forward who could recognize the perpetrators…

As luck would have it, this happened. Apparently on the night of the crime, at about 11pm, the alleged murderers knocked on the door of Abdulla Salah Hussein to ask directions to al-Madani’s house. Hussein, who was a registrar at a school in Abu Saibah,  happened to recognise Muhammed Taher al-Mahari from when he signed him up to class. The witness also noted how he could make out a red Datsun car with a group of people sitting in, but could not identify who they were. If only the police could also find a witness who could identify those dark shadowy men.

…As luck would have it, another important witness came forward. Clearly not great with directions, the alleged murderers had already stopped at around 10.30 pm at the house of someone else to ask directions to the house of Abdulla al-Madani. However, on that occasion, Ibrahim Abdulla al-Marhoon had volunteered to knock and ask for directions. Fortunately for the police, the witness had known al-Marhoon for about a year, and also recognized the other two who were sitting in the red Datsun (Falah and al-Mahari). Another witness then claimed he saw the red Datsun outside Al-Madani’s house.

Although these rather serendipitous testimonies verified the occupants of the car, and confirmed that the accused wished to go to, and eventually parked outside al-Madani’s house, the evidence was weak – something even the British acknowledged.  It is unclear whether or not anyone questioned why the perpetrators of a murder would wander around a village, knocking on the doors of people (who happened to know them) in order to ask for directions to their victim’s house. Having said that, they did claim to be drunk.

In addition to this evidence, the police already had signed confessions, which were allegedly extracted under torture. They also produced further confessions during the trial (This implies that ‘interrogation’ was still happening after the court case has started). Despite defense objections to the fact these confessions had not been produced at the committal proceedings, the evidence stood. It seems likely that the confessions were produced in this fashion as the actual evidence might not have been enough to secure convictions.

Trial and appeal

To recap, those on trial for kidnapping and killing Abdullah al-Madani were;

1) Muhammed Taher al-Mahari; 2) Ibrahim Abdulla al-Marhoon; 3) Ali Ahmed Falah; 4) Ahmed Makki; 5) Abdul Amir Mansour

The judges included one Egyptian, one Jordanian and Sheikh Abdulrahman bin Jaber Al Khalifa. (What political trial would be complete without a member of the Ruling Family). The first three men were charged with murder and other crimes. The other two (4 and 5) were charged with conspiracy and instigating murder.

Muhammed Taher al-Mahari pleaded guilty, even though he was described in a British document as ‘so limited in intellect that in England he could probably have pleaded diminished responsibility’. Ibrahim Abdulla al-Marhoon pleaded not guilty to murder, but guilty of planning it and other minor offenses. Ali Ahmed Falah admitted kidnapping only. Ahmed Makki and Abdul Amir Mansour pleaded not guilty, and also claimed their confessions were extracted under torture.

In the end, Muhammed Tahar al-Mahari, Ibrahim Abdulla Al Marhoon, were convicted of murder and given the death sentence. Ali Ahmed Falah was given life imprisonment for kidnapping, although after the appeal hearings, which were concluded on 5th March 1977, Falah’s sentence was increased from life in prison to death – (the reason for which is suggested later). The president of the appeal court was a senior Al Khalifa,* and  the three men were killed by shooting on 7th March 1977.

As for Ahmed Makki and Abdul Amir Mansour, who had allegedly planned the murder, they were actually acquitted. Despite this they remained in jail for eight years** afterwards – most probably to prevent them becoming heroes for the leftist cause. Again, the fact that they stayed in prison despite being acquitted illustrates the nature of political justice in Bahrain.

Pressure to arrest, pressure to kill

British reports mention how failure to make arrests would increase the likelihood of  al-Madani’s religious supporters taking the law into their own hands and attacking leftists. Keen to avoid this, the Bahraini authorities wanted to make quick arrests. In addition to this, there was a lot of political pressure to make an example of PFLOAG. Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, Bahrain’s Prime Minister, wanted to secure five executions. In fact, the Prime Minister reportedly told the British Ambassador that if the judges did not secure five death sentences, he would put the judges themselves on trial. He also added that he was making preparations for five executions.

According to the British, the Prime Minister’s attitude  reflected divisions in the Ruling Family between the moderates and hardliners. Whereas the former believed that executing five Shia men would create political tension, the latter believed that executions should happen before pressure could be generated for a reprieve. The hardliners also included merchants close to the Ruling Family. In additions to this, the Saudis were pressuring to have the executions carried out as swiftly as possible, as they too feared a delay would create popular pressure for a reprieve. The judges reportedly waited for the dispute to be resolved before committing to a verdict.

It is worth noting that the Prime Minister’s attitude towards any anti-government agitation was hawkish from the get go. In 1973, a group of PFLOAG members, including two women, were arrested on put in a prison on the Bahrain Island of Um al-Hassan – where the Prime Minister said they would  stay. In the same year, a PFLOAG member accused of storing weapons and explosives was also given a stiff sentence in order to deter other potential recruits.*** The Prime Minister was also angry at Kuwait’s leniency towards its own radicals. Perhaps it was the PM who pressured the Kuwaitis to expel a Bahraini leftist from University in Kuwait? Clearly the political murder of Al-Madani provided a great opportunity to move against PFLOAG, and an even better opportunity to insure continued division between religious elements and leftists.

What did the British know?

The British knew that al-Owainati had been tortured and killed by the Bahrain Defence Force. However, because this information was told to the British Ambassador in confidence and was regarded as a secret by the Bahrain government, the British said nothing. In fact, when Stan Newens, a British MP and member of the Gulf Committee , wrote to ask about the death of the Ghuloom and al-Owainati, the British simply said they could not confirm the report about the latter’s death. Of course this was untrue, and during a number of drafted letters between the Foreign Office and Newens, the British were careful not to let on how much they knew about Al-Owainati’s death. They thought it would compromise the source that had given them useful information on Bahrain’s internal situation (the name of the source is omitted, but presumably it is Ian Henderson – I have sent another FOI request in the hope of having the source disclosed).

Although the British did not divulge much information to Newens and the Gulf Committee, they sent a report of the incident along with the full details of al-Owainati’ death to Tony Crosland, the British Secretary of State at the time. What Tony Crossland did with the information is unclear, although what is clear is that British officials actively hid details of the incident from the British public. It is also unclear how much the British really knew about Ghuloom’s death. It seems unlikely that the source who knew about al-Owainati’s torture did not also reveal more about Ghuloom’s torture and the torture of the others. Indeed, despite British protestations that the presence of British officers in the Bahrain police was not their concern, they were clearly uneasy about it.

Opposition reaction

Both the National Liberation front and PFLOAG claimed that Al-Madani’s murder was a ploy by the government to frame leftists and increase religious tensions in Bahrain. A statement by the two parties read;

‘Many patriots, including workers, students, soldiers and other sections of the population in town and countryside now face brutal torture’

A report in the Morning Star noted that thousands of people marched in support of releasing the remaining PFLOAG prisoners. They were, after all, incensed that two of their number had been brutally killed in the interrogation. However,the executions and crackdown severely diminished the activities of both PFLOAG and the NLF.

The legacy of the al-Madani case

Ghuloom and Al-Owainati’s legacy has been sustained by the brutality, injustice and mystery surrounding their deaths. As for the al-Madani trial; whether or not those tried were actually guilty is up for debate, though it is clear that political pressure from Saudi, the Prime Minister and hard line merchants had a notable impact on the outcome.  Additionally, the fact the British public were prevented from knowing more about al-Owainati’s death also may have contributed to reduced political pressure to press for accountability and transparency from the Bahraini government.

Over thirty years have passed since their deaths, but both Muhammed Bucheeri Ghuloom and Saeed al-Owainati remain important icons in Bahraini politics. In particular, they highlight the often brutal and opaque tactics  used by the Bahraini government, who continue to use nefarious methods to combat challenges to their authority. Graffiti images of the two are still common around Bahrain, and some of al-Owainati’s poetry can be read here (Thanks @chanadbh for this link). Some of the survivors of the case are still directly involved in Bahraini politics. Ahmed Makki, for example, is a member of the National Democratic Action Society (Waad).***** Furthermore, there are still those searching for justice. For example, Muhammed Ghuloom’s sister recently gave a speech at a Waad meeting demanding that those who tortured her brother be brought to justice, and that the government finally tell them where their Muhammed is buried.

* The British document does not mention him by name, though does state the judge was a brother of the ministers of labour and education. It was probably either Khalid or Isa bin Muhammed bin Abulla Al Khalifa

** Although this document states Ahmed Makki stayed in prison for eight years, I cannot be sure about Abdul Amir Mansour

 *** Also in 1973, iconic Bahraini political figure Muhammed Bunafoor and PFLOAG member died in a suspicion explosion in his house. The authorities alleged he was making a bomb, while others believe it was a plot engineered by the security forces to get rid of Bunafoor – who had been a huge thorn in the regime’s side for years. 

**** According to another a British telegram, the rulers were actively trying to turn the religios bloc against the leftists. The British even mentioned how this ‘divide and rule’ was a potentially dangerous tactic. (FCO 8/2180)

***** Interestingly, the home of Abdulla al-Madani’s son, Hassan al-Madani, was gutted in a ‘mystery blaze’ in December 2012. The attack reportedly came after he was threatened following the release of an article he penned for the pro-government Akhbar Al-Khaleej entitled “Don’t hijack the procession and the ma’atam!”. As far as I know, results of the police investigation have not been published.

One thought on “Did British Officials Hide Evidence of Torture in Bahrain?

  1. Wilf Brunt says:

    I am a student at the University of Warwick writing a dissertation on Ian Henderson’s actions in Kenya and Bahrain. I would love to be able to reference the the archival documents linked in this article – is there a way I could find out more specific details about where they are from?


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