Monday, 4 April 2011

The Bahraini Three, 1957-1961

The National Union Committee (NUC) was a nationalist reformist political organization formed in Bahrain in 1954 in response to sectarian clashes between Sunni and Shia members of the population.  The original aims were to push for an elected popular assembly, a codified system of civil and criminal law, the establishment of an appellate court, the right to form trade unions, an end to British Colonial influence through the removal of the Ruler’s British Adviser Charles Belgrave, and an end to sectarianism.

The original committee was made up of four Sunni representatives and four Shia representatives amongst whom were Abdulrahman al Bakir, its Secretary, Abdali al Alaiwat and Abdulaziz al Shamlan.

The NUC successfully orchestrated a number of general strikes and demonstrations in the country to push for its demands.  In March 1956, British Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd was visiting Bahrain.  Crowds of protesters lined the streets to shout anti-British slogans and threw sand and stones at the Foreign Secretary's entourage.  Abdulrahman al Bakir was among the leaders of the demonstrations.  He was asked to leave the country after the incident for an extended stay abroad, and departed to Egypt only to return to Bahrain in September 1956.

In July 1956 Egypt had nationalised the Suez Canal and in October the NUC called for strikes and demonstrations against the Israeli-Anglo-French attack on Egypt in the Suez Campaign.  This led to days of violence in Bahrain.  In November, the ruler Sheikh Salman ibn Hamad Al Khalifa (1895-1961), ordered the arrest of the NUC leaders, accusing Al Bakir, Al Shamlan and Aliwat of attempting to take his life.  On December 23rd a specially set up court made up of three judges, all members of the ruling Al Khalifa family, tried the men, with two others, and found all guilty.  The three acknowledged leaders were sentenced to fourteen years to be served at a prison located outside of Bahrain the other two to ten years in a Bahraini prison. Al Shamlan was the son of Sa'ad Al Shamlan who had been deported by the British to India in 1938 along with several others who had called for reform.

Using The Colonial Prisoners Removal Act, 1869, the British made the necessary arrangements for the three convicted ringleaders to be transported on a naval frigate to St Helena where they were held at Munden’s Point.  Once there they attracted considerable publicity and on 27th January 1957 Al Bakir appealed to the Supreme Court on St Helena and to the Judicial Committee of the British Privy Council for a writ of habeas corpus.  In June 1960 the Privy Council dismissed the appeal

Munden's Point, April 2010

Members of Parliament continued to question the Government, and the British press continued to report on the matter.   Hansard 7th March 1957 reported:
At the moment, three citizens of Bahrain are sitting in a gaol in St. Helena, in a building 200 feet above the sea with a sheer drop down precipitous rocks.  They are serving a sentence of fourteen years' imprisonment which, if they are very good, may be commuted to eleven and a half years. There, like Napoleon before them, they will eat out their hearts and eat away their lives in lonely exile, until the time when their sentences expire.  They were taken there in the Royal Naval frigate "Loch Insh", which lifted them up from Bahrain on 28th December last and deposited them at St. Helena on 27th January; so they are now one month and 6.000 miles away from their homeland, their families and their friends.  Why are they there, serving a term of imprisonment in St. Helena?  I am sure that the Minister will not be able to say that they have been convicted of any offence against British citizens or British authorities.  They have not committed any crimes against the British Government or against the colonial Administration.  They have, in fact, been convicted and sentenced by the Ruler of Bahrain. The State of Bahrain is independent and under British protection, but is not a British Colony. How, then, does it come about that these Bahraini citizens are serving a term of fourteen years' imprisonment in a British Colony?  We are told by the Foreign Office that the Ruler of Bahrain requested that they should be sent to St. Helena. In other words, it appears that the British Empire is now offering its services as a kind of general prison warder to rulers who are troubled by inconvenient citizens. I hope that this case does not create a precedent. This extraordinary procedure is very probably illegal. It is certainly immoral and undoubtedly inexpedient.

The Bahraini three remained a source of embarrassment and London now wanted an alternative to keeping them in a British prison.  The Governor of St. Helena, Sir Robert Alford, visited Whitehall and warned that the three exiled Bahrainis would object to their return to Bahrain and if that was their only alternative they would much prefer to remain on St. Helena.  According to the Governor, prison conditions were good; the prisoners had access to all of the books and periodicals in the local library, and had a powerful short-wave radio, which received Middle Eastern stations.  In addition, accompanied by a guard, once a week they were permitted a jeep ride around the island.
Parliamentary unease continued as Hansard of 7th July 1960 reported:  Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his predecessor, through a notice published in an extraordinary issue of the St. Helena Gazette, declared these men to be convicted before they were even tried, that the trial which took place has been declared by every competent observer to have been a sheer farce, that the men were shanghaied to St. Helena by a disgraceful piece of jiggery-pokery by the Right Hon. Gentleman's predecessor, the Foreign Secretary and the Ruler of Bahrain, all conspiring together?  Is it not time that these men were released and compensation paid for the wrong done to them?

Hansard of 20th December 1960 detailed the jiggery-pokery:

This matter concerns three prisoners who are at present within the custody of the Governor of St. Helena, that is, they are within the custody of Her Majesty’s Government. they were apparently members of a revolutionary group in Bahrain. The object of that revolutionary group appears to have been to secure that some members of some advisory committee on public sanitation should be elected instead of being nominated by the Ruler.  It seems a rather limited revolutionary aim.
Also involved here is the fact that some people—nobody suggests that they were any of these prisoners; they were people who might have been their friends—threw some stones at a car containing no less a person than the present Chancellor of the Exchequer.  I would ask the House to pay rather special attention to the dates of the events connected with this matter. As a result of these sad and lamentable activities, on 18th December, 1956, the Ruler of Bahrain sent a communication to Her majesty the Queen which contained this passage:  We beseech you to allow us to make arrangements with the Governor of St. Helena for the reception of the persons who will"— and hon. Members should note the word "will"— be sent to that island in accordance with the sentence decided.  That was on 18th December.  Four days later, on 22nd December, a court was convened to try these gentlemen, and their trial took place five days after the sending of the communication, on 23rd December.  This was a trial of people who on 18th December had not even been charged but concerning whom it had already been decided that they would be sent to St. Helena. Their sentence had been decided.  That seems to be a strictly "Alice in Wonderland" order of proceedings. 

On June 13th 1961 at a further habeas corpus action the acting Chief Justice of St Helena ruled that the three prisoners had been unlawfully detained and ordered them to be discharged and awarded costs.  On June 19th the Lord Privy Seal (Edward Heath) said in the House that the judgement had been based not on the grounds that there was any defect in the men’s original trial but that the warrant under which they were transferred from the custody of the Ruler in 1956 was invalid.  They arrived in London on July 14th where they were entertained in the House of Commons and held a press conference in which they praised the British people but condemmed the British government for its "tyrannical" policies in the Arab world. In October the government’s solicitors were instructed to negotiate compensation with the solicitors representing the three men which was subsequently paid.

For details of The Three following their release I received the following information researched and translated from Arabic by Yousef Khalifa Al Ghulfi in Sharjah.  Taken from the archive of the Bahraini Al-Wasat newspaper and from an article by Dr, Hussein Al-Baharna, "Readings in the Trials of the National Union Committee Leaders". His blog post on the same subject can be found at: http://yksbs.blogspot.com/2011/03/three-men-of-st-helena

In his autobiography 'From Bahrain to Exile', Al-Bakir noted, "No one can picture our happiness. It was as if we were reborn again. After numerous attempts from 1958 to 1961 to ask for our release, Allah finally delivered us our rights and undid that which was unjust.  Infuriated at their release the Emir of Bahrain refused to grant the three men new Bahraini passports and the British government granted them British passports with the status of "protected person" allowing them to travel to whatever destination they wished, and they immediately left for the Middle East.  Al-Shamlan and Al-Alaiwat travelled to Damascus while Al-Bakir settled in Beirut.  Al-Bakir took up trade once again and continued to travel between Lebanon and Qatar until his death and burial in Beirut in 1967. Al-Alaiwat left Damascus in 1966 for Iraq where he lived in the famed Kadhimyah neighbourhood of Baghdad until his death on January 1969, after which he was buried in the holy Shia city of Najaf.  Al-Shamlan managed to return to Bahrain in 1971 where he helped draft the 1973 constitution (it was eventually overturned a year later prompting demands for its return that continue to this day).  Later, Al-Shamlan served as Bahrain's Ambassador to Egypt, Malta, Tunisia, and the Arab League and continued to live in Muharraq in Bahrain until his death in December 1988.



2 comments:

John Tyrrell said...

Interesting story - and highly topical! Do you have any idea what happened to them after they returned to England. Did they remain here?

John

John Grimshaw said...

I need to confirm my information but after their release the Emir of Bahrain refused to grant the three men new Bahraini passports so the British government granted the three men British passports with the status of "protected person" allowing them to travel to whatever destination they wished. Al-Shamlan and Al-Alaiwat left for Damascus while Al-Bakir settled in Beirut. Al-Bakir took up trade once again and continued to travel between Lebanon and Qatar until his death and burial in Beirut in 1967. Al-Alaiwat left Damascus in 1966 for Iraq where he lived in Baghdad until his death on January 1969, after which he was buried in the holy Shia city of Najaf. Al-Shamlan, he managed to return to Bahrain in 1971 where he helped draft the 1973 constitution (it was eventually overturned a year later prompting demands for its return that continue to this day). Later, he served as Bahrain's Ambassador to Egypt, Malta, Tunisia, and the Arab League and continued to live in Bahrain until his death in December 1988.