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Revealed: Princess Diana visit linked to Bahrain crackdown

United Kingdom
Britain’s ‘Butcher of Bahrain’, Colonel Ian Henderson, behind Prince Charles and Princess Diana. Illustration by Sophie Mo for New Internationalist

Security for a visit to Bahrain by Prince Charles and Princess Diana back in 1986 was overseen by the country’s notorious spy chief, ‘the Butcher of Bahrain’, to stop regime opponents causing trouble, a newly declassified file suggests.

Shortly before Princess Diana arrived in Bahrain, Britain’s ambassador Francis Trew wrote a secret telegram about ‘Royal tour: Security’. He said that the opposition group, the left-wing National Liberation Front (NLF), was ‘thoroughly demoralised following the recent arrest of their entire leadership’.

Bahrain’s autocratic Amir and staunch British ally, Sheikh Isa bin Salman al-Khalifa, had spent the year arresting around 100 members of the NLF. It was the eighth crackdown on their movement in 20 years.

Britain’s ambassador described the arrests as ‘devastating blow’ to the NLF ‘from which their recovery will be cautious, painstaking and long term. They are not considered a threat in this context’.

‘They killed my husband and gave us a death certificate saying he committed suicide’

Two Bahraini opposition activists, Radhi Mahdi Ibrahim and Dr Hashim al-Alawi, were allegedly tortured to death as part of the crackdown, in the months before the royal couple visited Bahrain.

‘They killed my husband and gave us a death certificate saying he committed suicide … [but] I know that he was tortured to death,’ said Iman Shweiter, the wife of Dr al-Alawi, in a 2016 interview with the BBC. ‘The loss of my husband, who was killed in prison, will affect me forever.’

Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, Director of Advocacy at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, said, ‘The stories of the Bahrainis who were tortured during the 1980s are a painful reminder of the awful abuse endured by victims of the British government’s unconditional support for the Bahraini regime, at a time when people were tortured to death in the Gulf state. Despite the passing of decades, the survivors are yet to recover from their ordeal.’

At the time of these deaths, the UK Foreign Office told campaigners that the men died of suicide and natural causes. The allegations of foul play were awkward for Whitehall, because Bahrain’s security apparatus was run by an expatriate British officer, Colonel Ian Henderson.

Human rights groups have dubbed Henderson ‘the Butcher of Bahrain’, alleging that he personally tortured opposition activists during his decades in charge.

The secret file reveals that after Bahrain's crackdown on left-wing activists, Britain’s ambassador ‘reviewed security for the [Royal] visit with Henderson’, who felt that ‘the internal situation was “about as good as it could be”.’

The file also notes that ‘Henderson has now had what he regards as a thoroughly satisfactory meeting with his Bahrain Defence Force counterpart and is much happier about coordination.’

Crucially, the file shows that the British government supported Henderson’s role. When the Amir was worried that Henderson might retire (‘Bahrain could not afford to lose him’), the British ambassador said he ‘shared this hope’ that Henderson would stay – adding that Henderson had been ‘grossly overworked lately, largely on personal protection duties’ – a possible reference to the Royal visit.

In the end, the Royal visit went smoothly. Archive newsreel from the trip shows Charles and Diana getting the red carpet treatment and cruising around on the Amir's superyacht.

The British file confirms that the Amir enjoyed the royal visit, and ‘had only warmth to recall of the Prince and Princess of Wales’ visit’.

‘He recounted with delight a conversation with the Princess [Diana] who had asked what he would think if his son were to marry a tall, blonde English woman. He had replied that he would be very jealous.’

The details about Charles' and Diana’s visit to Bahrain are contained in a secret Foreign Office file called ‘Internal political affairs in Bahrain’. The department initially refused to release the file under the 30-year-rule, along with dozens of other documents about Royal visits to the Gulf.

The decision was approved by the National Archives' censorship watchdog, whose members include Dr Elizabeth Lomas, an adviser to Prince Charles, who has not responded to our request for comment.

Later, in response to a freedom of information request, the government handed over some of the file. Parts are still redacted, apparently to safeguard international relations with Bahrain.

Dr Marc Jones, a Bahrain expert at University of Exeter, said the latest revelations in the file about the Foreign Office's relationship with Colonel Henderson were ‘significant’. He said that ‘British staff in Bahrain were fully aware of torture occurring in Bahrain in the 1970s and early 1980s.’

‘British staff in Bahrain were fully aware of torture occurring in Bahrain in the 1970s and early 1980s’

Henderson had cut his teeth in Kenya as a colonial Special Branch officer, where he captured Kimanthi Dedan, the last surviving Mau Mau leader (he was hung by the British in 1957). At that time, the British Commander-in-Chief of East Africa commented that ‘Ian Henderson has probably done more than any single individual to bring the Emergency to an end.’

However, Britain’s counter-insurgency campaign in Kenya came to be characterised by torture and executions for which the British government has since had to pay out millions of pounds in damages.

Henderson died in 2013. His final years were dogged by controversy as campaigners tried unsuccessfully to get the Metropolitan Police to prosecute him over his work in Bahrain.

Britain continues to have close military and security ties with Bahrain, whose ruling family continues to stamp out dissent.

The Prince of Wales had not responded to our request for comment at the time of publication.


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