UK trained Bahraini army officers even after crackdown began

Britain continued to train Bahraini army officers at Sandhurst months after the Gulf state began its brutal crackdown against pro-democracy demonstrators, it was disclosed yesterday.

Five Bahraini officers were receiving tuition at the élite military academy in Surrey as recently as last month, a Freedom of Information (FoI) request has revealed.

The link emerged as the Ministry of Defence (MoD) was criticised for dispatching army personnel to Saudi Arabia to instruct the kingdom's national guard in public order techniques and the use of sniper rifles. The security force has been deployed to help crush the uprising in Bahrain and impose martial law.

The five most recent Bahraini trainees at Sandhurst have since returned home. They included Sheikh Mohammed bin Salman al-Khalifa, son of Bahrain's Crown Prince, Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa.

Sandhurst has a long tradition of training military officers from Bahrain, where at least 29 people have died in street fighting since February. The country is ruled by a Sunni royal family, but the majority of its population is Shia. Most of those killed have been Shia demonstrators supporting civil rights. Crowd control is included in the training at Sandhurst, but the MoD has emphasised that it is only a tiny part of the course, and does not qualify trainees to act as specialists in the field.

The King of Bahrain, Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, is a Sandhurst graduate. He is also a patron of the Sandhurst Foundation, a charity for trainees, to which he has donated £70,000. According to official figures, 61 Bahrainis have been trained at the academy since 1995.

The former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell said it was "surprising" that the links had been kept up despite the violence in Bahrain. "At the very least these arrangements should have been suspended pending the outcome of the political changes," he said.

Nishma Doshi, the campaigner who submitted the FoI request, said: "It is astonishing we invade Libya claiming we're defending protesters, while at the same time training the forces who are murdering protesters in Bahrain."

An MoD spokesman said: "All overseas requests for defence training are considered on a case-by-case basis and it would not be provided if we thought such training would lead to human rights abuses. Indeed, providing training to the same high standards used by UK armed forces helps to save lives and raise awareness of human rights."

Separate FoI requests disclosed that up to 20 British teams are sent to Saudi Arabia each year to give instruction in "weapons, fieldcraft and general military skills training, as well as incident handling, bomb disposal, search, public order and sniper training".

Nicholas Gilby of the Campaign Against Arms Trade, said: "Britain's important role in training the Saudi Arabian National Guard in internal security over many years has enabled them to develop tactics to help suppress the popular uprising in Bahrain."