Briton at the heart of Bahrain's brutality rule

Robert Fisk on the secretive and widely feared 'power behind the throne' of the troubled emirate

Robert Fisk
Sunday 18 February 1996 00:02 GMT

Expelled from Kenya, 1965 AP

IAN Stewart MacWalter Henderson has torturers on his staff. In the embattled state of Bahrain, he is the most feared of all secret policemen, the General Director of Security and head of the State Investigation Department, a 67-year-old ex-British police superintendent whose officers routinely beat prisoners, both in the basements of the SIS offices and in the al- Qalaa jail. Leaders of the Bahraini opposition believe he is the power behind the throne of Sheikh Issa bin Salman al-Khalifa, and they may well be right.

Interviews with former Bahraini prisoners living in Beirut, Damascus, Qatar and London provide consistent and compelling evidence that severe beatings and even sexual assaults have been carried out against prisoners under Henderson's responsibility for well over a decade. Although the British Government has repeatedly denied any connection with Henderson, the Foreign Office remains deeply embarrassed by the role of the former Special Branch officer who twice won the George Medal for his role fighting the Mau Mau in British-ruled Kenya. Accounts given to me by Bahraini nationals suggest that Henderson now wields total power over the island's security apparatus.

A leading Shia clergyman has described to me how he was beaten with a cane last year by a Jordanian SIS colonel called Adel Fleifl - who is Henderson's official interpreter. The same man was accused of torturing a young Shia woman in 1985 by tying her to a pole in SIS headquarters and beating her insensible with his fists. One former prisoner claims that in the 1980s he was sexually abused in Henderson's headquarters by another British officer who forced a bottle into his anus in an attempt to persuade him to reveal the names of Shia opponents of Sheikh Issa's regime. The man identified the Briton by name and we have confirmed that a British officer of the same name worked for Henderson at the time.

Henderson himself is a bespectacled, almost avuncular, figure whose politeness is as legendary as his staff's brutality. He has never personally harmed a prisoner - nor, so far as is known, been present at torture sessions - and his fourth-floor offices and archive rooms in Bahrain's SIS headquarters suggest the workplace of a hard-pressed civil servant rather than that of the secret policeman he is.

His wife is his personal secretary, a woman in her mid-60s who, dressed in a brown one-piece suit - ''like any English housewife" as one ex-detainee described her - ushers prisoners into her husband's office for interrogation. Sometimes Henderson prefers to meet important prisoners at the al-Hidd headquarters of the Bahraini Interior Ministry Special Forces whose all- Pakistani units smartly salute Henderson on his arrival and guard him during his daily swim near the Bahrain dry-dock complex.

Sheikh Khalil Sultan, a prominent Shia clergyman now in exile, met Henderson 20 times last year during a series of negotiations that briefly halted the largely Shia insurrection against Sheikh Issa - talks which proved beyond doubt that the former colonial police officer plays a crucial personal role in dealing with opposition demands for the return of parliament and constitutional democracy to the emirate. Local newspaper photographs of Henderson - which never identify him by name - invariably show him next to the Interior Minister, Sheikh Mohamed al-Khalifa, and the ministry's director of training, Colonel Hassan Issa al-Hassan.

''I was arrested at my home at midnight on 1 April last year during the unrest in the villages outside Manama," Sheikh Khalil said. ''There was no warrant for my arrest. I was blindfolded and handcuffed. I was taken to SIS headquarters where Colonel Adel Fleifl came into my cell and attacked me with his cane, whipping me six times on the head, face and thighs. He was furious. He said: 'I don't have time for you because we are busy with the other [prisoners]. Tonight is the finish of you - all of you.' Then he left. But nothing happened."

Serious rioting and disorder continued on the island, however, as up to 2,000 more prisoners were arrested by Henderson's security police. After initial meetings with Sheikh Mohamed, the interior minister, Sheikh Khalil and two other prominent Shia inmates were told they could offer proposals for an end to the unrest to Henderson in person.

"We were taken to the SIS top floor where all the offices had coded security locks and where his wife told us to go into his room. There were others present, including another Briton whose name was 'Brian'. I was surprised there were no pictures of Sheikh Issa or the Crown Prince on the walls. Henderson had receding hair and a chalk-white face; he was wearing a suit and tie. He was very courteous and shook hands with each of us. He could say 'Ahlan wa sahlan' (welcome) in Arabic, but he couldn't speak the language - he used an interpreter, Colonel Adel Fleifl, the man who had beaten me up when I arrived."

Sheikh Khalil and his two colleagues put to Henderson a series of proposals which they said would end the disorder In Bahrain. These included the release of all non-sentenced detainees, an amnesty for sentenced prisoners, the return of deportees, work for Bahrain's unemployed, freedom of expression, the restoration of the constitution and parliamentary elections.

"Henderson told us he was against releasing the detainees in one lot - he preferred freeing them in batches. He never spoke in his name - only in the name of 'the government' - but he praised our initiatives and said it was a good solution to the crisis. Later, it turned out that this was a trap. We were distrustful. For 13 years, Henderson had been serving the regime. Anything he said would be for their benefit - not for the people."

The talks went on for four months as Henderson tried to delay the release of prisoners. "He said that Sheikh Abdul-Amir al-Jamri, the most important religious leader, must be released last - not first, as we demanded - because Saudi Arabia had insisted upon this. He told us that some of the Bahraini government didn't trust us. He said: 'If we release you and you can stop the rioting, you will be heroes.' But he was blackmailing us, trying to extract an end to the violence for the minimum of concessions."

By August, Henderson's mood had changed. "He came into the room one day with Fleifl, the man who beat me, and ostentatiously drew a line across a sheet of paper on his desk, saying: 'Four and a half months of dialogue have been wasted. We can imprison you for three years under the State Security Law - and when you are eventually freed, we can imprison you for another three years.'

"But he was nervous. The meetings went on. He told us not to talk to Ahmed Shemlan, the democratic spokesman whom Henderson later imprisoned. He said he would release us if we ordered the opposition to keep quiet, especially the Bahraini opposition in London."

Sheikh Khalil was freed, he says, after Henderson promised that his demands would be met after the opposition ended its propaganda. "We spoke in the mosques, urging people to be calm and they obeyed. Ten days later, I left to talk to the opposition. I was in London when the interior ministry announced that there had been no agreement between the opposition and the government. Henderson had made promises that he never intended to keep. I refused to go back and be blackmailed again." In Bahrain, the violence restarted.

Henderson's men did not change their tactics. Mass arrests were followed by beatings at SIS headquarters. Three clergymen, Sheikhs Ali Salman, Haidar Fikri and Hamze Deir were forced to stand for hours without sleep and refused medication by Fleifl, according to Sheikh Khalil, before being deported last month. Other prisoners claim that two more Jordanians on Henderson's staff - Abdul-Karim al-Akouri and Mohamed Oweiyad - tried to make them sign false confessions. Detainees say they also watched one of Henderson's interrogators, Abdul Nabi Busheiri, beat and kick a prisoner called Ihsan Hobbein in the face before throwing him against an air-conditioning machine in al-Qalaa prison.

Fleifl was also named by Sheikh Abdullah Salih, an exile in Damascus, as the man who tied him to a pole "like a chicken" and beat him after his arrest as long ago as 1980. Sayed Hisham al-Moussawi, deported from Bahrain last year, accused a Bahraini, Mohamed Hijazi, and a Pakistani national of kicking him in prison, adding that a British officer - not Henderson or ''Brian'' - was present during the ill-treatment. He named a Briton who worked with Henderson as responsible for his torture in 1983. The officer ''wanted me to confess to political activities. They beat my wife up in front of me and then the Briton pushed a bottle up my anus."

In Damascus, Khatoun al-Arab testified that her 20-year-old sister had also been tied upside down to a pole and beaten unconscious in 1985 by Fleifl because she allegedly belonged to an Islamist opposition group.

Some former detainees claim that Henderson has had two cancer operations and wishes to retire; one said Henderson had told him he wanted to bring "peace" to Bahrain before he left.

In Robert Bolt's Man for All Seasons, the ferocious Thomas Cromwell describes the task of a king's servant as to "minimise the inconvenience" of life for his master and Henderson appears to fit this description. "I am a postman - I just carry messages between you and the government," he once told Sheikh Khalil. But Henderson is much more than a postman. And the revolution he is trying to suppress in Bahrain is an inconvenience that torture is unlikely to change.

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