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OP-ED: Ian Henderson and Repression in Bahrain: A Forty-Year Legacy

WASHINGTON, Apr 18 2013 (IPS) - Ian Henderson’s death announcement Apr. 15 in Bahrain brings to an end the life of a British expatriate who was the architect and supervisor of the harsh internal security policies of the al-Khalifa ruling family since the early days of independence over 40 years ago.

Henderson’s life’s work intertwined intimately with al-Khalifa, especially with the family’s all-powerful perennial Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman, the ruler’s brother.

The policies of discrimination, exclusion, and intolerance practiced by the Sunni minority ruling family against the Shia majority were designed and executed by Henderson and his subordinates and blessed by the prime minister. They have been grounded in fear, repression, systematic violations of human rights, and in some cases torture.

This is the legacy that Ian Henderson has bequeathed to the people of Bahrain.

Henderson was a British national and a colonial officer who was renowned for using violent tactics to subdue the anti-British Mau Mau movement in Kenya. After independence, the British government in 1968 removed him from Kenya and installed him in Bahrain as a security adviser to Al-Khalifa.

Three years later, when Bahrain acquired its independence from Britain, the Bahraini prime minister retained Henderson as his security adviser and head of Bahrain’s Security and Intelligence Service.

His department employed British, Bahrainis, Omanis, Jordanians, Sudanese, Pakistanis, and others. He was responsible directly to the prime minister and acted in his name. The main mission of Henderson’s BSIS was to penetrate dissident and pro-democracy groups – Sunni and Shia – and defeat them.

The Security Service under Henderson’s supervision and control commonly practiced fear, intimidation, and “enhanced interrogation methods”. Like the prime minister, in the early 1970s Henderson perceived all human rights advocates and proponents of the constitution and an elected parliament as “radicals”, “extremists”, and “terrorists”. Many were arrested without due process or clear charges and often beaten and tortured.

I spent 1972-1973 in Bahrain as a U.S. Senior Fulbright Scholar conducting field research on the making of the new state of Bahrain. Once I called Henderson for an interview on domestic security. He declined and told me he would have to get permission from the prime minister for such an interview because he worked for him directly.

The interview never took place. But when I met him at an official function and introduced myself, he said,” I know who you are. We keep tabs on everyone who lives here.”

On another occasion, I wanted to call him from a minister’s office. The minister, who became agitated and visibly afraid, did not want Henderson to know that I called him using the minister’s telephone number. The minister told me, “Everyone is afraid of Mr. Henderson. He has absolute authority in Bahrain because he acts on behalf of Shaikh Khalifa, and no one dares to cross him.”

Henderson instilled fear in the population, cemented the power of the prime minister, and stifled all voices of dissent. Once in the late 1970s, I visited the home of a distinguished journalist who worked for the local newspaper al-Adwa’. His son, who was just released from detention on a trumped up charge of incitement, was beaten severely by Henderson’s security officers. The marks from the beatings were still visible on his body.

On the flight out of Bahrain, I asked a British security officer sitting next to me about the beatings of the journalist’s son. As he already had a few drinks, the officer freely acknowledged the story and told me, “Yes, we do interrogations but we do not torture; Arab mercenaries do that!” By “mercenaries”, he meant the Arab expats who worked in his department.

The past two years have clearly shown the regime tactics of fear, intimidation, and terror have failed to silence demands for reform, equality, and democracy in Bahrain. Equally, Henderson’s legacy has made Bahrain less secure and the legitimacy of the ruling family and its long-term control of the country more precarious.

Many Bahrainis, who suffered from Henderson’s security extralegal practices, often refer to him as the “Butcher of Bahrain”. It’s interesting to note that the policies of fear helped enhance the prime minister’s control of the economic and political life of the country but did not cement the legitimacy of Al-Khalifa autocracy. Nor did they silence calls for justice and popular participation in decision making.

The colonial mentality of the past two centuries, which was brought by the Al-Khalifa family to bolster their rule, no longer works in the 21st century. Like their Arab counterparts, Bahraini youth and pro-democracy advocates have used the new social media and their sheer determination to face down the regime.

The prime minister and the ruling family should view Ian Henderson’s death more than two years after the start of popular upheaval as a stark symbolism and a strong metaphor of what Bahrain has become. For 40 years force has failed to silence calls for dignity and demands for democracy. If these demands are not met in 2013, Henderson’s legacy that began 40 years ago will remain sullied.

*Emile Nakhleh, a former Senior Intelligence Service Officer, is a Research Professor at the University of New Mexico and author of “Bahrain: A Political Development in a Modernizing Society.”

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