Gulf state's British torture chief moved

Click to follow
OFFICIALLY, Ian Henderson has lost his job. According to the Bahrainis, the former British Special Branch officer and "hero" of the Mau Mau war in Kenya has been replaced as head of the island's Special Intelligence Service by Sheikh Khaled bin-Mohamed bin-Salman al-Khalifa, a member of the emirate's ruling family. But opposition groups, whose members have suffered torture in the cells of Mr Henderson's SIS headquarters in Bahrain, have their doubts about the announcement.

For almost 10 years, Bahraini dissidents, especially Shia opposition members demanding a return to parliamentary rule, have claimed Mr Henderson, a Scot largely credited with breaking the Mau Mau's intelligence service, has been in charge of the island's torture chambers. Their allegation is true. His interpreter - after three decades in Bahrain he cannot speak Arabic - is a Jordanian army officer who has personally whipped interrogation victims. The New York-based Human Rights Watch has reported that the toe-nails of prisoners have been torn out. Electricity has also been used on Shia protesters brought to Mr Henderson's offices, although witnesses say the Briton has himself never inflicted torture.

In Britain, Bahraini opponents of the regime have been demanding Mr Henderson be brought to trial in London for rights abuses, a call supported by a number of Labour MPs.

British foreign secretaries have disclaimed any responsibility for his activities - Mr Henderson's victims have sometimes been deported to London and forbidden from returning to their country of birth, even though they hold full Bahraini passports.

There are rumours in Bahrain that Mr Henderson has cancer and has been given a golden handshake by the al-Khalifa family to buy property for his retirement in the US.

But Bahraini opposition leaders still wonder if the announcement is true. Asking for anonymity, one Bahraini critic said yesterday that even if Mr Henderson has been fired from his job as SIS head, he may still hold a position within the al-Khalifa's personal security service. "We are told he is being replaced by Khaled Mohamed - but the sheikh is not an intelligence man, just a traffic official. ," the Bahraini said. "I suspect this is just a blind to ease the criticism from London." His suspicions can only be reinforced by a statement from the Bahraini government that Mr Henderson will be kept on as an "adviser" to the interior ministry.

Britain appointed him to his post in Bahrain prior to the emirate's independence in 1971. The US has never uttered a word of protest about his presence on the island - not least because of Bahrain's role as headquarters to the US 5th Fleet in the Gulf.

Mansour al-Jamri, a spokesman for the "Bahrain Freedom Movement" in London, said it made little difference whether Mr Henderson or Sheikh Khaled ran the security services so long as Bahrainis continued to be imprisoned and tortured. "If we see the number of ... victims decrease ... that will be a positive sign." Mr al-Jamri's father, Sheikh Abdul-Amir al-Jamri, has been in jail on the island since January of 1996. Violent protests have decreased in recent months - a reason, perhaps, for Mr Henderson's departure from the SIS.