It is perhaps a cliché to say history repeats itself, yet this saying seems to have held true over the past year in the Middle East, particularly in Bahrain. Uprisings have happened before, and been successful or crushed through counter-revolutionary forces. But it is in behind-the-scenes developments that there really is a flashback to the past.
Last month, Bahrain appointed two men — a former Miami police chief and John Yates, the former assistant commissioner of London’s Metropolitan Police — to oversee the reformation of the state’s police force, which was found in an independent inquiry to have committed systematic human rights abuses and used torture to crush the 2011 pro-democracy uprising.
By virtue of their nationalities and their countries’ strategic involvement with Bahrain, both former “top cops” are dubious choices. Yet Yates in particular stands out, as he was forced to resign from the Metropolitan Police in the summer over a newspaper phone-hacking scandal. Moreover, his appointment reeks of the colonial past. Britain set up Bahrain’s security force prior to independence in 1971, and the General Directorate of State Security was run from the mid-1970s until 1998 by former British policeman Ian Henderson.
Amnesty International documented widespread torture under Henderson’s leadership, and he forcefully put down protests in the 1970s and early 1990s, earning him the sobriquet “the butcher of Bahrain”. It is the second such nickname for Henderson, who was a senior policeman in British-occupied Kenya in the 1950s, playing a role in the brutal suppression of uprisings and becoming labeled “the butcher of the Mau Mau”. In 1986 he was awarded the title of ‘Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire’ for his services.
Although a Jordanian has headed Bahrain’s security force since Henderson retired, the modus operandi has remained the same, as last year’s events document. Furthermore, Henderson, who still lives in Manama, is believed to have provided advice to the authorities during the crackdown.
While Yates may not be cut from the same colonial cloth as Henderson, his mindset is not radically different. “Bahrain’s police have some big challenges ahead, not dissimilar to those the United Kingdom itself faced only a couple of decades ago,” Yates was quoted as saying in The Daily Telegraph newspaper. But what exactly is Yates referring to? When were there “pro-democracy” uprisings in Britain in the past 20 years? Or any protests suppressed by putting tanks and soldiers on the streets? Perhaps he is referring to the Brixton riots in London in 1980 and 1995, which, in any case, were widely attributed to racist policing methods and high unemployment. Yates appears to have fallen for the official Bahraini line that Iran is primarily to blame for inciting the uprising and the demonstrations had nothing to do with political repression or a minority Sunni monarchy ruling a Shia majority country.
The appointment is also curious when one considers the role of the Metropolitan Police in the riots in London and other English cities last August. A joint study by The Guardian newspaper and the London School of Economics into the causes of the riots published in December, identified “distrust and antipathy toward police as a key driving force.”
Such findings do not brook a great amount of confidence in appointing a senior London cop to overhaul Bahrain’s police force. But then, reforming a police force without reforming Bahrain’s political system, by giving the opposition seats in government and addressing the root causes of the uprising, will not change much either. As Saeed Shahabi, a campaigner with the Bahrain Freedom Movement, said of the appointments: “This is not the first time that foreigners have come from the West to upgrade the security services… The government cannot survive without suppressing freedom of expression; only a democracy can tolerate protest.”
The appointments are therefore just a veneer of reform, with Bahrain too strategically important to the West — especially with rising tensions over Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program and Bahrain’s accommodation of the American Navy’s Fifth Fleet — to allow for substantive democratic change or dissent. By appointing one cop from the former colonial power and another from the current global hegemon, it seems that history really does repeat itself.
PAUL COCHRANE is the Middle East correspondent for International News Services