British police are still training cops in authoritarian regimes and deluding themselves that by imparting their wisdom they will prevent human rights abuses.
Earlier this month, members of Durham Constabulary travelled to Bahrain and posed for photos with their counterparts. On the trip, Durham police signed a deal to "deliver training so that Bahraini officers can better make use of forensics in their investigations". Durham's Police and Crime Commissioner Ron Hogg said, "This will enhance officers' use of evidence to ensure that offenders are prosecuted and brought to justice, and also to enable those wrongly accused to be effectively acquitted."
Pictured among the smiling bobbies is Brigadier Fawaz Hassan Al Hassan, a Bahraini police officer who has trained in the UK, visiting Belfast in 2015 for a week-long course in "command and control". He is ultimately in charge of Muharraq police station, where activists say they have been electrocuted and sexually assaulted during interrogations. (There is no suggestion that the Brigadier is personally involved in any abuse, or sanctions any such abuse.)
The Durham delegation even popped into Muharraq police station on the visit, where they “praised” the local police for “gaining the trust of the community” – according to a statement in Arabic put out by the Bahraini authorities.
This tiny Gulf island is one of Britain's closest allies in the Middle East and is ruled by the repressive King Hamad, who takes a dim view of any dissent. He clung to power during the Arab Spring pro-democracy protests by cracking down on demonstrators with help from neighbouring Saudi Arabia – that other bastion of freedom. Ever since, the UK Foreign Office has arranged for Bahrain's police to receive British training on human rights, to counter the regime's many critics at home and abroad.
The latest trip by Durham Police follows on from a forensics course delivered by the UK's College of Policing in 2016, and a community policing and protest management scheme involving the Police Service of Northern Ireland in 2015 – the one which saw Brigadier Al Hassan visit Belfast. Although none of these courses have stopped the allegations that Bahrain's police are torturing protesters into making false confessions, Durham Police seem to think they will succeed where others failed.
"Durham Constabulary was recently identified as being the top force in the country for solving crimes," Hogg boasted. "Durham has also been rated as 'outstanding' for effectiveness and efficiency for the past three years. This means that Durham is exceptionally well-placed to deliver the training, which will help to spread British values and to improve the quality of policing within Bahrain."
Hogg has refused to say how much the deal is worth – his spokesman said, "The value of the agreement is commercial in confidence." But Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary has said that Durham's links with Bahrain "may prove to be lucrative". The deal makes Durham the third UK police force in four years to make money from training Bahrain.
The recent Durham delegation visited Bahrain's CID headquarters, where they were "briefed on the work, toured a number of departments and inspected the exhibition", according to a statement in Arabic from the Bahrain police media centre. "The exhibition included samples of weapons and explosives used by terrorist groups to target the lives of police officers."
They didn't bother to mention it, but Bahrain's CID building is repeatedly named as a torture site by human rights groups. In 2014, school teacher Abbas al-Samea was allegedly electrocuted in the genitals and suspended from the ceiling at the CID building. He was then sentenced to death for causing an explosion that killed three police officers. A UN expert described his execution in 2017 as an "extrajudicial killing" based on "torture, unfair trial and flimsy evidence". The Bahraini Embassy in London said the conviction was based on "forensic evidence" including fingerprints.
Sayed Alwadaei, advocacy director at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy in London, said his relatives were beaten at the CID building last year and coerced into making false confessions. Police carried out forensic tests of DNA and fingerprints which did not connect them to the alleged crime. However, they were still sentenced to up to 11 years in prison on the basis of the confessions.
"Bahrain does not lack forensic techniques to put people behind bars," Alwadaei said. "In my family's case the forensics should have cleared them, but they resorted to false confessions to convict them. The issue is more fundamental. The job of Bahrain's police is to silence dissent by any means necessary."
The UK's College of Policing gave Bahrain CSI and fingerprint training in 2016 until the scheme was suspended was reasons "not influenced or associated with any developments in Bahrain". Now, Durham Constabulary has taken over this forensics role from the College of Policing.
"Yet again we see another British police force rushing into working with a regime that has a very poor record on upholding human rights," said Lord Scriven, a Lib Dem peer. "Durham Police need to question not just the reason why they are doing this, but how they can guarantee that the methods and techniques they are giving to the Bahrain Police force won't be used to further erode human rights. It beggars belief that the UK government and security and police services are running for business without putting human rights central to if they engage."
Hogg said the training deal was "developed at the request of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, to support wider British aims in the region" and approved by senior ministers. "The agreement will help to promote human rights in Bahrain by improving the quality of evidence which is used by the police and prosecutors, and by increasing the extent to which prosecutions and convictions are based on objective evidence."
Hogg said he has "included a clause in the contract which ensures that British Policing’s Code of Ethics applies in the delivery of the contract, and which enables Durham Constabulary to withdraw if the required standards in this respect are not being met." Of course, if it ever dawns on Durham police that cosying up to a police state is potentially unethical, the long suffering people of Bahrain will no doubt find another UK constabulary is only too willing to give it a go. It’s Durham this year – perhaps it will be the turn of bobbies from Avon and Somerset or Kent Police in 2020?