Policing Bahrain: the long arm of the British

Just after the Arab Spring was brutally crushed in Bahrain, Britain's John Yates, the former Assistant Metropolitan Police Commissioner, became an advisor to the Ministry of Interior. What happened next?

John Horne John Lubbock
8 August 2013

On August 14th, many Bahrainis will celebrate the day in 1971 when the country gained its independence from Britain. The Bahrain government and its ruling family, however, will not, preferring instead to commemorate “National Day” on December 16th, marking the date the current King’s father began his rule in 1961. King Hamad recently went so far as to say, “for all practical and strategic purposes the British presence has not changed and it remains such that we believe we shall never be without it.” The celebrations on August 14th will thus take the form of protests demanding self-determination, democracy and human rights.

To many opposition activists, the contemporary face of British “practical and strategic purposes” in Bahrain is John Yates, the former Assistant Metropolitan Police Commissioner hired as an advisor to the Bahrain Ministry of Interior (MOI) in December 2011. Yates is the latest in a long line of British advisors to Bahrain, including the notorious Colonel Ian Henderson CBE who oversaw horrific torture during his tenure heading the country’s security apparatus between 1966 and 1998.

Yates was hired to help implement police reforms after the brutal response by security forces in attempting to suppress a popular pro-democracy uprising, begun on February 14th, 2011. He was recruited following recommendations made by a report which concluded that security forces, operating under a “culture of impunity”, had been responsible for systematic torture, extrajudicial killing, enforced disappearances and excessive force.

However, as multiple local and international human rights reports have documented, these practices continue, reforms have been scant, and the culture of impunity persists. This begs the question: what has Yates actually done in Bahrain? Moreover, where does Yates' role sit within Britain’s current “practical and strategic purposes,” both at home and in Bahrain?

The stated aim of the British Embassy in Bahrain reads in part: “to help Bahrain to return to a stable and reformist state [...] while protecting our significant defence and security interests”. Although the British Government has said that it “had no involvement in [Yates’] appointment,” his new position and extensive connections would likely have been welcomed, helping to keep British interests at the heart of the so-called reform process.

Indeed, British hooks into police “reforms” were made clear last June, when Yates accompanied Bahrain’s Interior Minister on a visit to London for meetings with Government Ministers, the Director General of Mi5, and other officials. According to a document prepared by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), he was “keen to learn from the UK”. Following the meetings, the MOI began receiving FCO support for a community policing project and training from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons.

The direct links between Yates and post-2011 policing in Bahrain are speculative, particularly given the presence of US police advisor John Timoney, once branded “America’s worst cop”. However, it’s worth exploring four tactics further: forensics, containment, surveillance and delegitimising the opposition. Before turning to Yates’ period inside Bahrain though, it is instructive to look at what he was bringing.

I am very well connected

John Yates came to Bahrain with experience and knowledge of some of the most sensitive and secretive aspects of British policing and public life. In a witness statement dated February 22nd 2012, Yates said: “From around 2001, I was vetted (and remain so vetted) to the highest possible level as a police officer. Such a level of vetting allows me access to the highest grade of ‘secret’ and ‘top secret’ material.” In 2009, Yates became Assistant Commissioner for Specialist Operations and the national lead for counter-terrorism.

Yates, however, was mired in controversy when he was hired by the Bahrain government. Just months before, he had very publicly resigned from the Met, following concerns over his handling of the phone hacking investigation and friendship with an implicated media executive. Nevertheless, during his policing career, Yates developed close ties with the British establishment. In 2007, following accusations that he was leaking information on the then Labour government to the media, he reportedly refused to allow his own phone records to be examined, telling the investigating officer: “No Bob, I am very well connected.”

Yates was familiar with events in Bahrain when he took the job there. On February 15th 2011, the day after the pro-democracy uprising started, Yates had lunch with the “Security Advisor to the Royal Court of Bahrain”. It is not currently known what was discussed, or what subsequent meetings Yates and other British officers may have had. However, it is probable that the Bahraini official raised concerns over opposition figures based in London. This raises a question seldom asked: to what extent, if at all, has the British police monitored Bahraini dissidents, whether for domestic purposes or as part of an intelligence sharing agreement?

There are good grounds for posing this question. For example, Dr Saeed Shehabi who heads the London based Bahrain Freedom Movement was tried in absentia in 2011 and sentenced to life for calling for the fall of the regime. The Bahrain government labels him a “terrorist”. Speaking recently, Dr Shehabi said that when travelling outside Britain, he and others are routinely stopped and questioned for up to two and a half hours under the UK Anti Terrorism Act.

Another central question: what is the operational working relationship between British and Bahraini police? Prior to 2011, the UK’s National Policing Improvement Agency had three full time advisers in Bahrain. Did they remain in place? Equally, what duties has the UK Police Counter Terrorism Liaison and Extremism Officer (CTLEO) responsible for Bahrain performed since 2011?

These questions seek to reframe the possibilities and continuities of Yates’ role in Bahrain, particularly as following his appointment, officers from the Metropolitan Police were deployed to Bahrain on two separate occasions with the approval of the British Home Secretary. Indeed, the first deployment was revealed on December 7th, 2011 – five days after Yates’ new job was announced – following incidents at Bahrain airport and outside the British Embassy. Five days later, Prime Minister David Cameron met with King Hamad in London. These incidents likely ensured that both Yates’ future role and British counter-terrorism assistance were on the minds of both leaders.

Yates of Bahrain

The first real public challenge for John Yates was on February 14th, 2012, the one-year anniversary of the uprising. Mass protests marking the date were expected. Rumours were rife that demonstrators would attempt to return to Lulu Square in the capital, Manama. The site had been occupied by protesters in February and March 2011, before being attacked and cleared by security forces, who then demolished the sculpture at its centre and turned the site into a militarized zone.

Yates promised a strategy of “containment” and “kettling”, insisting that security forces would pursue a “reasonable reaction to provocation”. He also took the opportunity to smear the opposition movement: “This isn’t organised protests, its just vandalism, rioting on the streets.” On the day, as the BBC reported, Manama “was under a massive police presence and remained calm throughout”. However in the villages, “communities were effectively locked down”. Opposition groups reported over 100 injuries.

This was an extreme form of “containment”, dependent on massive deployment and blind faith that police would not act in a reckless, undisciplined manner, despite all evidence to the contrary. However, the underlying rationale – keeping Manama free from protest – was central to the longer policing strategy. Checkpoints became an increasing feature, obstructing access to protests and even funerals.

Concurrently, villages outside the capital came under nightly attack by tear gas – a chemical weapon – fired excessively and indiscriminately at demonstrators, over residential areas and into houses. Physicians for Human Rights has compiled a list of 19 people said to have died from tear gas exposure, many at home, between January and March 2012. The sense of being under daily siege is exacerbated by the fact that the majority of the police are foreign mercenaries, brought to Bahrain with the promise of a better salary, housing and citizenship.

Yates’s perspective, however, was quite different. He said: “I don’t get a sense of being under siege,” and, “Along with my family, I feel completely safe. Indeed, safer than I have often felt in London.” Indeed, when in Bahrain, Yates adopted something of a PR role, going on a media offensive at the two peaks of international attention - February 14th and the Formula 1 race in April. Yates blamed “inaccurate and often deliberately false information being spread through social media forums,” adding that there were “criminal acts being perpetrated against an unarmed police force, who, in the face of such attacks, are acting with remarkable restraint.” The latter claim seems particularly odious given that Bahrain police are armed with high-velocity tear gas launchers and shotguns loaded with birdshot pellets – weapons which have caused serious and even lethal injuries.

Yates’s public comments were strikingly similar to those of the Bahrain government and the Western PR firms paid to promote its message. As such, they played into a wider strategy to delegitimise the opposition within the local and international community by associating them with violence and lies.

Whilst policing and political strategies sought to restrict and delegitimise critical voices and citizen journalists, surveillance of the opposition increased apace. CCTV cameras have been installed across the country, although these have been regularly attacked by angry protesters. For Yates, “CCTV is everywhere [and is] utterly fantastic”. Police units dispatched to protests and other incidents often have a cameraman present recording protesters, as seen in this police footage from a demonstration in Manama on January 6th, 2012. This is reminiscent of British Forward Intelligence Teams, used to help police identify and monitor protesters, whose details are then stored on a database.

Bahrain’s interest in surveillance predates Yates. At the IDEX 2011 arms fair, Bahrain was reported to be “seeking an aerostat/UAV [Unmanned Aerial Vehicle] surveillance solution for national security missions”. Subsequently, a UAV dubbed the “spy balloon” by activists, began to be sighted above Manama, as seen here and here. Equipment provided by Trovicor has enabled the interception and monitoring of opposition communications. British intelligence gathering company Olton has also worked for the Bahrain government, including the MOI, although the full details are currently unknown.

In April 2012, several months into Yates’ tenure, Bahraini activists began to be targeted by spyware called FinFisher, manufactured by UK company Gamma International. The spyware infects computers and mobile devices, capturing user’s activities and communications. Amongst the targets were London based Bahraini Shehab Hashem and British-Bahraini Dr Ala’a Shehabi. The British government is currently being challenged over its export controls concerning Gamma’s products.

Modern policing

An oft-cited MOI reform is the introduction of CCTV cameras into interrogation rooms, as a means of preventing the violent abuses committed throughout 2011. To skirt this, in 2012 unofficial detention centres were established. Individuals were taken to them by security forces, either as punishment, or to be tortured.

The US State Department recently summarized the forms of torture used in these sites throughout 2012. They include “beating”, “electric shock” and “sexual abuse”. Yates dismissed the reports of abuse in secret detention centres, saying: “But that would be on YouTube”. In May 2012, he outlined his plans to develop forensic policing methods in Bahrain. His reasoning is expressed euphemistically: “It’s a move away from a confession-based approach to a more scientific approach.” Fundamentally, he means a structural move away from the use of torture and duress to obtain confessions. This would be tested over the following months.

On June 27th, while Yates and the Interior Minister were meeting with British officials, the MOI announced that two weeks previously it had discovered "over 5 tons" of "highly-explosive material used for bomb making". Several days later, BBC’s Frank Gardner vastly downgraded the haul from “over 5 tons” to “over 100kg”. He also revealed that a “team of forensic detectives from the Metropolitan Police” had been sent to Bahrain to assist in the investigation. They stayed until at least the start of August.

The direct British involvement raises serious questions about complicity in human rights abuses. Three men arrested in relation to the case allege that they were tortured and suffered other ill-treatment. They were also reportedly held “separately in solitary confinement for months” and denied “regular access to a lawyer” and medical care. Lawyer Mohamed Al Tajer has further alleged that British officials were present during interrogation sessions.

Four men are currently on trial in the case, accused of “being part of a terrorist group”. They deny the charges against them. Nevertheless, Britain continued to expand its police presence in Bahrain, dispatching members of the National Policing Improvement Agency in “late 2012” to provide forensics training.

John Yates’ contract officially expired last July. However at the time the Bahrain government said that he “remains as an important advisor” and is “scheduled to regularly visit the country in the coming months.” Yates is currently a “senior consultant” to intelligence firm G3. In July 2011, the company was awarded a £1.5million contract by the Bahrain government to develop a "media campaign to support Bahrain's position in the international community”.

Despite the ongoing repression and gross human rights violations, the British government continues to pursue its “significant defence and security interests” in Bahrain. In February, Bahraini officials attended the Security and Policing exhibition organised by the Home Office. The following month, King Hamad’s son and accused torturer Sheikh Nasser attended the Counter Terror Expo arms fair in London. The Head and Senior Military Advisor of the UKTI Defence & Security Organisation, responsible for British arms sales, made separate trips to Bahrain in March and April. It is thus little wonder that for many Bahrainis, the British government’s claimed support for reforms, democracy and human rights, are just a facade to disguise their support for the status quo.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData