Thursday, May 24, 2012

Kafka in the Gulf 2

Absolute Rule

The story begins in November, 1956, in Bahrain. Bahrain is not, of course, a British territory, but it is a territory under British protection: it has a British Political Agent (at the material time Mr Charles Alexander Gault) and a British political Officer (a lower rank; at the time, Mr Alfred Francis Ward) who represent the British Government in Bahraini affairs, and exercise the protection of the British Government. Above the Political Agent for Bahrain there is the British Political Resident for the Persian Gulf (then Sir Bernard Burrows).

Bahrain is under the absolute personal rule (subject only to British administration of external affairs, exercised through Resident and Agent) of the Ruler, Sheikh Salman bin Hamed. He had, at the time our story starts, a British Political Adviser, Sir Charles Belgrave: the Adviser, unlike the Resident and the Agent, is in the employ of the Ruler, not of the British Government, and acts exclusively on his behalf. Sir Charles was, in effect, Prime Minister of Bahrain, a post he held from 1926 to 1957, and one of the more touching facts in this history is that he got the post by answering an advertisement the Ruler put in the British press; it is perhaps the only occasion in history when a Prime Minister has been appointed in this fashion. Anyway, Sir Charles Belgrave was not, to say the least, an outstandingly progressive or flexible Prime Minister of Bahrain, and was, for the last years of his appointment at least, rarely in the position of urging the Ruler to go faster and further in modernising the political conditions in Bahrain than the Ruler himself would have been inclined to do. It was the British officials - Resident and Agent - who pressed the Ruler to modernise his regime, and the few concessions he made were almost entirely due to British Government pressure.

The Ruler's Law

There was nothing in Bahrain, at the material time, that would be recognised as a law in this country: what its citizens might, might not and had to do was at any given moment what the Ruler decided. There is now a rudimentary legal code, but the prisoners in this case were not tried according to its provisions (which did not exist) or indeed according to the provisions of any legal code whatever. With the exception of certain cases within the jurisdiction of the British Government (constitutionally speaking, of Her Majesty), all cases go either to the existing Bahraini courts, or to special courts that the Ruler may set up, and how, where, and by whom cases are heard and judged is within the Ruler's absolute discretion.

Cases in which there is British jurisdiction are specified in the Bahrain Order, 1952. This applies to all persons in Bahrain except Bahraini subjects and corporations, and subjects of the Rulers of Saudi Arabia, the Yemen, Muscat and Oman, Kuwait, Qatar or any of the Trucial States. For dealing with everybody else, the Order makes provision in Bahrain for different kinds of British courts. One, called the Joint Court, exists to deal with what are called Mixed Cases: these are cases (civil or criminal) in which persons subject to the Order and persons not subject to the Order are both parties. In other words, if a British citizen in Bahrain is involved in a dispute at law, or a crime, with a Bahraini citizen, the case is heard before the Joint Court; if only British citizens are involved it is heard before what is called the Court for Bahrain, and of course if only Bahrainis (or other local subjects) are involved the British courts have no jurisdiction, and the permanent and special Bahraini courts hear the case. (The reason for this Order is, of course, that the Bahraini courts are very properly considered quite unfit to try British subjects. They are also unfit to try Bahraini subjects, but HMG can hardly do anything about that.)

There is one loophole in this Order, which was to prove of great importance in the present case. The loophole consists of a section which provides that, with the concurrence of the Political Resident, mixed cases may (despite the special Joint Court for dealing with them) be transferred to the ordinary local courts. In an access of generosity, however, the Political Resident, Sir Bernard Burrows, gave a general concurrence in 1953 that all such 'mixed cases' could be heard before the local courts; in effect, therefore, he abolished the Joint Court entirely.

The Committee

There are no political rights in Bahrain, but some years ago an organisation known first as the High Executive Committee, and later as the Committee of National Union, came into being, one of its aims being a less authoritarian system of government in the territory. Three of the members of this Committee of National Union were Abdul Rahman Al Bakir, Abdul Aziz Al Shamlan and Abdullah Al Aliwat. The Committee was well known as the mildest, most inoffensive and least demanding nationalist group in the Middle East. Their objective was no more than to have elected representatives to sit on the advisory committees (for health, education, etc) that were entirely nominated by the Ruler. (These committees in any case had no powers apart from that of advising the Ruler and Sir Charles Belgrave.) Their aim would have been regarded as ludicrously inadequate by a Rural District Council in Britain, yet they were met with protracted delay and opposition from Sir Charles. When a BBC television unit went to Bahrain in June, 1956, there were some revealing exchanges between the interviewer (Mr Woodrow Wyatt) and Al Shamlan (Secretary of the Committee and now one of the three prisoners on St. Helena).

Wyatt: What is it that the Committee wants?
Al Shamlan: The Committee wants reform and wants to participate in the administration of the country.
Wyatt: Does it not participate in the affairs of Bahrain at all at the monent?
Al Shamlan: Not at all at the moment, people are not participating in their own affairs. It is only one-man rule.
Wyatt: What is the system of justice in Bahrain?
Al Shamlan: There is no justice. Actually, we have no rules whatever. We haven't got a code, we haven't got a penal code either.
Wyatt: No laws?
Al Shamlan: No laws. And that's what we are trying to get for this country. We want to get laws for the country.
Wyatt: And why do you want Sir Charles Belgrave to go?
Al Shamlan: Well... he is administrating hospitals, police, customs, finance, justice - that can't be for one man.

On March 2, 1956, when Mr Selwyn Lloyd was visiting Bahrain, there was a demonstration, and stones were thrown at his car. Al Shamlan declared that this demonstration (which had not been organised by his Committee) was not a demonstration against Mr Lloyd personally, or against the British Government - the Committee insisted that they wanted Bahrain to retain its British connection - but 'to give an expression about Sir Charles Belgrave only... the people, as they want him to go, they wanted that Selwyn Lloyd knows this fact'.

Following the launching of the Suez attack at the end of October, 1956, there were disturbances in various parts of the Middle East, in the form of protests and demonstrations against the action, and in Bahrain, in particular (because of the British-protected status of the territory), against the British part in it. Following these disturbances, one man was arrested there on November 2, and four more (including the three mentioned) on November 3. None of these men is a British subject (there is some doubt as to whether Abdul Rahman Al Bakir is a citizen of Bahrain or of Qatar, but he lived in Bahrain). What they were charged with was as follows" The attempted assassination of of the Ruler and of some of his family and of his Adviser (Sir Charles Belgrave); the destruction of the Ruler's palace; setting fire to the airport of Al Moharraq and other places; the overthrow by illegal means of governmental control [there are, of course, no legal means in Bahrain of altering the governmental control]; and the deposition of the Ruler.

This is, it will readily be seen, a pretty full morning's work, and why persons assassinating the Ruler should subsequently wish to depose him may not be entirely clear. Be this as it may, the men were arrested and charged (though it is not clear how long they were held before being charged, and nothing like habeas corpus proceedings exist in Bahrain), and nothing further happened for some weeks.

To be continued...

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