British spooks appear to be involved in a controversial security assistance scheme for a despotic regime, VICE can reveal. The UK government is using a secretive pot of money to deliver classified programmes in Bahrain. The tiny island nation is one of Britain's closest allies in the Gulf and is controlled by the autocratic King Hamad. The scheme costs potentially over a million pounds and is part of a new "Integrated Activity Fund", endorsed by the Cabinet Office's National Security Council.
When a Bahraini human rights group made a Freedom of Information (FoI) request to ask how the money was spent, the UK Cabinet Office said that "due to the nature of the Integrated Activity Fund and all the Programmes being funded by it, the information requested relating to the Fund is exempt under section 23(1) as it relies on information supplied by, or relating to, bodies dealing with security matters".
Section 23 of the Freedom of Information Act says that any documents linked to Britain's spy agencies MI6, MI5 and GCHQ, as well as the special forces, should not be disclosed to the public. The Cabinet Office said in a letter that, "Section 23 is an absolute exemption and there is no requirement to conduct a public interest test." It added that releasing any other information about the scheme would damage diplomatic ties with Bahrain.
The news has troubled some parliamentarians, who say the UK government's relationship with Bahrain is becoming far too secretive. Lord Scriven, a Lib Dem peer, has asked the government why it suddenly stopped releasing details of its programmes in Bahrain.
For the last few years, Northern Irish police and prison consultants trained Bahraini officers under a scheme funded by the UK taxpayer, details of which were obtained through Freedom of Information requests, because the police are fair game for FoI requests. That scheme has now ended and instead it seems that British spies may have taken over this security assistance role, paid for by the new Integrated Activity Fund, and operating with less transparency, under an FoI exemption.
Lib Dem Peer Lord Scriven told VICE that he had "never known anything quite like this… the more you dig the more defensive and more opaque the government's answers become. I'm now of the opinion that Parliament hasn't been told the truth or the whole truth… somewhere along the line British security forces are involved in this particular scheme and the government doesn't wish that to be known. The government's relationship with the Bahrain authorities is far too friendly and I think that's driven partly by the trade that we have with them, over military and arms sales. Brexit is on the horizon and they keep looking about for trade deals in the Gulf."
Bahraini human rights campaigners, many of whom live in exile in London, are also seriously concerned by the heightened secrecy around UK-Gulf relations. Sayed Alwadaei is advocacy director at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (known more evocatively as "BIRD"). "This shows the shocking lengths that the government is going to avoid transparency," he said. "I'm alarmed by the nature of the current programme and how they are hiding it from the public and parliament. This level of secrecy is just to satisfy one of the most repressive regimes in the world."
Mr Alwadaei, 31, has firsthand experience of the regime. His forehead is stamped with a distinctive scar, from when the police beat and tortured him during the Pearl Roundabout pro-democracy protests of 2011. Mr Alwadaei's mother-in-law is being held in Isa Town jail, where she is joined by other female political prisoners. Last Monday, a judge condemned another woman to Isa Town, after she was found guilty of inciting her follow citizens to "overthrow the political and social systems".
The prisoner, Najah Ahmed Yousif, 41, is an unlikely revolutionary. A former civil servant in Bahrain's labour market regulatory authority, and a mother of four, she has spent the last year in pre-trial detention. Despite her ordinary middle class background, Ms Yousif has reasons to be angry. In 2012, her father-in-law, Mansoor Salman, suffocated to death after security forces fired vast quantities of tear gas into their neighbourhood. He was 85 years old. Footage from his funeral shows his coffin was draped in the Bahraini flag and thronged by mourners on its way to the grave.
Ms Yousif's crime is a series of alleged Facebook posts, partly speaking out against the Formula One Grand Prix. The famous race visits Bahrain each year and is a rare moment of international attention for an otherwise overlooked Gulf state, sandwiched between its larger neighbours Saudi Arabia and Iran. When the judge sentenced her to three years in prison, she screamed and said to the court, "I am innocent! I told you in previous session, I was subjected to sexual assault, physical and psychological torture." The judge told her to be quiet.
Ms Yousif was referring to the moment when she was first arrested, back in April of 2017, and bundled away by the National Security Agency, Bahrain's equivalent of MI5. They took her to Muharraq police station, an imposing four-storey white-walled building, replete with faux turrets around the roof. It is tucked away behind a motorway, named after Bahrain's king, and looks on to a car wash. It is inside this building that Ms Yousif says she was beaten and sexually assaulted by Bahrain's spies. "They physically assaulted me, they tried to tear off my clothes, touched my sexual organs, threatened me with rape," she told her supporters.
While this interrogation was allegedly going on upstairs, the man officially in charge of the police station was Brigadier Fawaz Hassan Al Hassan. He is the most senior police officer in that district, and, as VICE reported, has visited the UK for training – paid for by the British taxpayer as part of a £16,000 course on "command and control". The Brigadier visited Belfast, where Northern Irish police officers gave him and five colleagues a crash course in how to manage protesters.
We only know about this because of documents obtained under FoI requests, which showed that it included sessions on water cannons, dogs and intelligence gathering. Despite this training, it seems that he has been unable to stop a torrent of abuse allegations emerging from Muharraq police station, some documented by UN experts. There is no suggestion that the Brigadier personally abused any suspects at Muharraq or ordered that any abuse should occur, but campaigners are concerned that as many as 15 people claim they were tortured in his police station last year.
When I asked the UK Foreign Office for a comment, an official spokesperson said the department "follow developments in the country closely, and are continuing to monitor the case of Najah Ahmed Yousif. We encourage those with concerns about treatment in detention to report these to the appropriate oversight body. The UK continues to encourage these bodies to carry out swift and thorough investigations into any such claims."
It is clear that the UK was already deeply involved with some of Bahrain's most controversial security units, and that relationship is only set to deepen behind a new veil of secrecy where FoI requests will no longer be able to penetrate. The Cabinet Office decline to comment.