A Bahraini policeman, who is accused of ordering a violent assault on two of the Gulf kingdom's top human rights activists, was later invited to Belfast for riot control training with the Police Service of Northern Ireland, VICE has found. And after the trip to Belfast, which was designed to improve human rights, the policeman's unit took part in a crackdown that left five Bahraini protesters dead.
The revelations have raised serious concerns about the quality of vetting done by Britain's Foreign Office before the Belfast visit, and the effectiveness of the UK training which cost taxpayers thousands of pounds. A Bahraini human rights advocate told VICE, "The UK has effectively trained one of the most brutal personnel of the Bahraini police."
The allegations against the policeman, Salah Mubarak Buqais, 44, stretch back over a decade. They stem from a crucial period in the country's history, when Bahrain's King Hamad was coming under sustained pressure to loosen his grip on power. At the forefront of this struggle for democracy were a handful of highly respected activists, Nabeel Rajab and Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, key organisers at the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, a watchdog similar to Liberty or the ACLU.
On the 15th of July, 2005, the pair gathered outside Al Fatih Grand Mosque, a major landmark in the Bahraini capital of Manama. From there, they planned to march less than a kilometre to the Parliament building. "The police were already outside the mosque when we arrived," eyewitness and fellow activist Ali Mushaima told VICE. "Buqais came over to us with 20 other policemen. He said: you have to leave now. Nabeel told him it's our right to protest."
Mushaima continued, alleging that "without any more discussion, Buqais just raised his hand to the other police to start beating Nabeel and Abdulhadi. I ran 50 metres away and saw Buqais with his team beating Nabeel, who was telling them to stop."
Another eyewitness supports the allegation that Buqais ordered the beating of these two top activists. VICE has been unable to independently verify these allegations.
VICE put the allegations in this article to the Embassy of Bahrain and Lt Col Buqais. Buqais did not respond directly. In response, we received a statement from Bahrain’s National Communication Centre, a government press office. It said: "Bahrain regularly collaborates with international partners to support the Kingdom's development programme. This has led to wide-ranging reform in the criminal justice system and the Kingdom is committed to ensuring its policing standards operate in full accordance with international best practice. As part of this, Bahrain has established a number of fully independent institutions, including an independent Police Ombudsman – the first of its kind in the Middle East – and a Special Investigations Unit that will investigate any complaints of wrongdoing against law enforcement personnel. Any such allegations should be submitted to these institutions immediately."
VICE separately contacted Bahrain’s Ministry of Interior media centre but received no response.
Photographs posted online after the incident show both Nabeel and Abdulhadi with red baton-shaped injuries on their backs. Nabeel was hospitalised for the next fortnight and suffered from a spinal injury, a broken finger, a fractured arm and a head injury.
Although protests like this won some concessions, Bahrain’s king remained firmly in power, and unrest continued to simmer away. When the Arab Spring finally dawned in 2011, Nabeel and Abdulhadi were once again at the forefront of the demonstrations, leading huge crowds to set up camp in the iconic Pearl Roundabout, Bahrain’s equivalent of Tahrir Square. The inevitable crackdown saw Abdulhadi sentenced to life in prison, such was his seniority in the pro-democracy movement, and the Pearl Roundabout monument torn down into a crumpled wreck of broken dreams.
For Bahrain’s closest allies, like the British government, the situation was embarrassing and patently undermined the idea that Britain supported democracy in the region. Some serious PR was needed to downplay the problem and repair the King's bruised international image. In the years that followed, Whitehall went on the offensive, even sending a British delegation to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva to "water down" a statement on Bahrain’s abuses.
A month before this lobbying, half a dozen Bahraini policemen arrived at the Radisson Blu Hotel in Belfast in August of 2015. Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and analysed by an expert at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) reveal that among the group was none other than Buqais. He was listed as a Lieutenant Colonel and a director of Bahrain’s Special Security Force, an elite police commando unit. His visit to Belfast was funded from the same pot of taxpayers’ money that bankrolled the lobbying in Geneva, and involved one of the same organisations, the Stormont agency Northern Ireland Co-operation Overseas (NI-CO).
In their briefing pack, NI-CO gave Buqais some helpful advice about visiting Northern Ireland. "The weather in Belfast is very different to Bahrain," it read. "So we would recommend to bring some warm clothing and maybe an umbrella/waterproof coat as it tends to rain a lot."
This was not a holiday. It was a carefully planned week-long study visit on "command and control". It was instigated by the UK Foreign Office and delivered by NI-CO and Northern Ireland’s police, who have a long and chequered history of dealing with protest.
Throughout the week, Buqais was treated to sessions on public order tactics, evidence gathering and "less lethal" options for handling protests, such as "water cannon, dogs etc". They observed parades by both Protestant and Catholic groups, and met the "silver commander" who was in charge of policing the events. Every detail, right down to back-up teams and support vehicles, was discussed. During a session at Musgrave police station in Belfast, they discussed the human rights and ethical issues surrounding protests. These seven days cost the UK taxpayer £16,064.
Maryam al-Khawaja, whose father Abdulhadi was allegedly assaulted by Buqais outside the Grand Mosque in 2005, told VICE that "I am disappointed but not surprised that Buqais received training in the UK. The disappointment stems from the UK promoting itself as a country with human rights values and principals, while the lack of surprise is a result of knowing about the relationship between the UK and multiple dictatorships." Maryam has followed in her father’s footsteps to become one of Bahrain’s most well-known activists, even spending time in prison for her advocacy work there. She added that "the UK has enabled and supported the regime in Bahrain for years, and has become one of the largest obstacles to international accountability for Bahrain and the larger Gulf states. It is high time that the UK lives up to the values and principals it says it holds."
"If this monster passed a Foreign Office background test, I question who can fail it."
Given Britain’s much vaunted "values", the trip raises serious question for the UK's Foreign Office about what vetting, if any, it did before Buqais was invited to Belfast. Emails show that just days before the visit Foreign Office staff changed the spelling of the officer’s name – from "Boqays" to "Buqais". "I see the spelling has changed once more! Haha," commented a staffer. But while care was taken over such details, there is no evidence that any vetting of attendees took place.
The Foreign Office refused to answer VICE’s questions about whether it knew of the allegations against Buqais before the Belfast trip, if it screens attendees of police training, or if it consulted any Bahraini human rights organisations to help them screen out potential human rights abusers from the study visit. Certainly, the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, the country’s leading NGO, was never consulted. If it was, they would have alleged that Buqais was responsible for assaulting two of its most senior staff.
"We have been repeatedly told that the British government are training Bahraini law enforcement in line with their human rights commitment," commented Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, advocacy director at BIRD. "However, we now know that the UK has effectively trained one of the most brutal personnel of the Bahraini police, whose reputation for ordering beatings is clearly displayed by the iconic scars on the backs of Nabeel and Abdulhadi.
"If this monster passed a Foreign Office background test, I question who can fail it. The reality is that torturers in Bahrain are rewarded by the Kingdom, while the UK continues to embolden and empower them."
The story does not end in Belfast. Nearly two years later, on the 23rd of May, 2017, hundreds of Bahraini riot police and special forces commandos burst into the coastal village of Diraz. They shot dead five protesters. Many more were injured and almost 300 people detained. It was the bloodiest day in Bahrain since the Arab Spring uprising. UN experts described the killings as unlawful.
While we do not know if Buqais personally took part in this fatal clearance operation, photos clearly show the Special Security Forces wielding assault rifles during the siege. Buqais was a director of this unit when he visited Belfast, for training ostensibly in "less lethal" methods of crowd control. It is not unreasonable, then, to expect that anything he learnt in Belfast should have been relayed to the rest of his unit. Presumably, this was why the UK Foreign Office, which organised the trip, invited such a senior officer. But in this case, the training was either not passed on, or ignored altogether. And in the end, thousands of pounds in taxpayers' money failed to stop the killing of five protesters.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland refused to answer any questions about its work with Buqais. A UK Foreign Office spokesperson provided this statement: "The UK has been providing a range of assistance to the Government of Bahrain since 2012, in support of its reform programme. UK assistance continues to support the building of effective and accountable institutions, strengthening the rule of law, and police and justice reform.
"All of our work is in line with international standards and any assistance provided by, or on behalf of, the UK Government fully complies with our domestic and international human rights obligations."