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29 November 1999

’Britain’s Klaus Barbie’ still walks free

New Statesman Scotland - A Scot in Bahrain is accused of being associated with appalling ac

By Rob Corbidge

If the current climate of international justice is taken at face value, it is arguable that many of Scotland’s greatest generals and colonial administrators, if alive now, would be in the dock facing a United Nations war-crimes prosecutor. Our relationship with the imperial past is not an easy one, ranging from denial, through to blaming the English, to fierce pride, and all the while surrounded by the cities and institutions that the Empire built.

There is an embarrassing relic of Scotland’s participation in the “great game” to whom the tide of history has not been kind. He is a living, breathing relic and his name is Ian Henderson. His very existence poses a question: does justice still belong to the victor, and if so, who won the British Empire?

Ian Henderson is in his early seventies. Born in Scotland, he is a British passport-holder and would undoubtedly correct anyone who described him as English. MPs from Scotland, notably our very own keeper of global conscience, George Galloway, and the outspoken Dennis Canavan, have been the most dogged in his pursuit. In parliament, Galloway called him “Britain’s Klaus Barbie”. The reason? From 1971 until last year, Henderson was head of the State Security Investigations Directorate for the essentially feudal Gulf state of Bahrain. Unofficially, he still is.

If human rights campaigners get their way, Henderson will face prosecution under section 134 of the 1988 Criminal Justice Act when he returns to Britain. This clause enables individuals to be put on trial in a British court for acts of torture committed abroad. Henderson is not accused of personally torturing, interrogating and illegally imprisoning Bahraini nationals opposed to the monarchical regime of the ruling al Khalifa family. But he is accused of authorising these things.

Composed of that fatal mix of oil and sand, Bahrain is a small island state occupying a geographical position of great importance, and none of the political problems western “infidel” forces normally attract when based on the Muslim soil of countries in the region are apparent there. This is largely thanks to Henderson.

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Henderson learnt his trade in Kenya as a Special Branch officer, winning the George medal during the Mau-Mau uprising. Thought highly of within intelligence circles for breaking down much of the Kenyan rebels’ information gathering network, he was on the list of individuals who were told to leave when the country achieved independence in 1964. Foreign Office officials decided he was the man to help Bahrain maintain stability on the road to independence in the wake of a 1965 uprising, which was put down by British forces. When the British finally relinquished the reins of power to Sheikh Isa bin Sulman al Khalifa in 1971, Henderson remained. And there he has stayed, unable to speak Arabic and using a team composed largely of foreigners to put down dissent among the 400,000 majority Shi’a Muslim population against the Sunni Muslim al Khalifa dynasty. The family dissolved parliament in August 1975 and abolished suffrage, giving Henderson orders to ensure their power was maintained at all costs.

Henderson has never been accused of personally torturing people, but rather authorising torture by those under his command. Opposition members have described how they have been beaten, electrocuted, whipped, tied in excruciating positions for days on end, kept awake, starved and had their toenails torn out by his men. Many opposition leaders have been deported, often to Britain, and told not to return.

Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and even, disingenuously, the US State Department have repeatedly condemned the Bahraini regime for its conduct.

So Henderson is a British citizen who is said to be responsible for torturing people abroad. Without a revolution, he will never be put on trial in Bahrain; therefore he should be put on trial here. This is where realpolitik intrudes on ethics.

According to sources within the Bahraini exile community, he was at the house he maintains in the Thames Valley earlier this year and nothing was done about it.

Unlike the Bahraini exiles, Henderson retains absolute freedom of movement. Why? Britain spent £1.5 billion on the Gulf war to help maintain those oil supplies, and our foreign policy in the region remains almost completely interchangeable with that of the US. Inevitably, we sell the Bahraini regime arms, and we put Henderson where he is today, or at least our predecessors in the distant 1960s did.

It’s a dirty story, maybe one which is better forgotten about. Successive governments have childishly denied responsibility for Henderson’s actions, including this “ethical” one. But a trial is a means of determining guilt, and Henderson is innocent until proven otherwise. The Scottish Parliament could take some responsibility and use its youth and unblemished character to raise the issue. It might gain some much-needed respect abroad if it did.

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