From the Archives is a blog series about Bahrain and its history. The stories told are drawn primarily from the documents, notes and correspondences kept at the British National Archives and India Office archives.
Part 4 of Year of the Nationalists can be read here.
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Court was held in a small, cramped room. Five men of the National Union Committee stood defending themselves before a special tribunal of three. Only fifteen could fit into the public gallery, such as it was in the makeshift courtroom above Budeya Police Station. The Manama Court, the largest in the country, should have been the set piece of this landmark trial. But it was felt that for “reasons of public order”, this small room above a police station would serve as a better courtroom.
The trial took place on 22 and 23 December, a month and a half following anti-imperialist riots and the arrests of the Committee leaders. The men on trial were Abdulrahman Al Bakir, the Secretary; Abdelaziz Shemlan, the Acting Secretary; Abd Ali Alaywat, the Representative of Country Districts; Ibrahim Fakhro, the Treasurer; and Ibrahim bin Musa, Representative in the Town of Hedd. Against them stood three judges of the ruling family, including the Ruler’s uncle Shaikh Abdullah bin Isa and Shaikh Daij, his brother.
Abdulrahman Al Bakir spoke alone for all the defendants. He urged that the trial be moved to the Manama Court, where such trials were meant to be heard. To have it in Budeya, he claimed, was to make it a secret trial – a claim the Al Khalifa spokesmen no doubt rebutted by pointing out the fifteen men seated in the makeshift public gallery. The government claimed that Budeya police station had been chosen because they did not want public order to break, to which Al Bakir asserted that not only did the government have the necessary forces to keep order, but that he would also personally guarantee that there were no disturbances. The tribunal ignored him.
Now he demanded that the trial must be held in the Manama Court and that the defendants must be given copies of the allegations and documents presented in court, or they would not make any statements to defend themselves. The tribunes agreed to give the defendants copies. But the trial would stay here, in the makeshift court. Presumably, they were quite alright with the defendants keeping shut.
So the trial continued and the evidence was heard. “Throughout the proceedings during this day and during the following day none of the accused made any attempt to defend himself although given every opportunity to do so. Whenever they were invited to speak they replied, through [Al Bakir], that they would not speak in Budeya.” And they did not speak in Budeya.
Evidence was brought forward and arguments made. It was damning enough for the court. A document in the papers of Shemlan, half-typewritten, half-handwritten, was produced wherein he talks of an Egyptian journalist he wishes to bring into the country on the Committee’s expense. “I was obliged to put some dangerous words to him, that the next step of the [Committee] is going to be real action and that if they succeed we will overthrow the present ruler and that he will be the first journalist who will be able to live in the heart of the coup and convey it to they world!” The letter is undated.
Another undated document, this one found in the possession of Abd Ali Alaywat, addressed to the “Free People” and signed by “The Commandos” gives five revolutionary demands: that the Muharraq airport be set on fire, to burn the palace of the Ruler, to murder members of his family, to assassinate “the dog”, the Ruler himself, and that “the Adviser to the Ruler is not to leave Bahrain alive”.
This evidence is suspect. We know Shemlan had some revolutionary sentiment, as there is an account of an argument between the Committee members in front of Bernard Burrows, the Political Resident, in September:
Fakhroo pressed [Shemlan] to say whether he really wished to obtain gradual constitutional progress or to overthrow the Bahrain Government. Shemlan replied that he was quite ready to overthrow the Government if necessary and that if only the British would stand aside for twelve hours he could bring this about. This had profoundly shocked Fakhroo and Orrayedh, and they described Shemlan’s attitude as treasonable.
On the other hand, how truly prepared he was to do overthrow the regime is unclear. Perhaps more damning are all the things Abdulrahman Al Bakir said while in Egypt, and for this there is more evidence than anonymously signed, undated documents. This evidence is in print, in the newspapers. Various extracts exist: “Slaughter every Briton”, the Egyptian Gazette quotes him saying. “We destroy Bahrain oil plant if” Egypt is attacked, reports the Daily Worker. These quotes taken from a speech he gave in Damascus during his exile – no wonder Al Bakir denied so much of what he said on his return to Bahrain.
But more of the evidence seems suspect than not. One undated letter received by Abdel Rezzaq al Khunji warns him that “if you are unaware, [Khalij newspaper] was boycotted by the entire public and you should boycott it or otherwise we will burn all your properties in Bahrain”, signed “Secretary Terrorism Party”. Hardly related to the Committee, surely? The same Committee which had told the British that they were losing control of hardline opposition factions on the street?
The evidence goes on. Letters and statements produced by the prosecution show the Committee threatening individuals who act out of line. In others, Abdulaziz Shemlan makes anti-imperialist statements, some of which were written to General Anwar Sadat in Egypt. One statement by the Ruler, Sheikh Salman, made in August 1956 claims the Committee had been raising a private army.
Witnesses were brought forwards, chief amongst them the Adviser, Charles Belgrave. He described how he had met with Al Bakir at the start of November when strike action was called, and how he had been assured that it will be peaceful. Part of his evidence was a section of his diary, which can be assumed to be this particular passage from his 1 November 1956 entry:
Start of trouble, in middle of morning most of the older boys in all the schools walked out & started processing round the town. The Committee also published a notice saying a strike tomorrow, Friday, and a demonstration procession, I saw Ben Baker in evening and he assured me it would be quiet & orderly & go by the route we had agreed.
But the strikes had gotten out of control and the Committee was declared an illegal organisation on 3 November. Belgrave further argued that they must have been planning the riots, “owing to the manner and methods which were used to carry out the acts of incendiarism which were caused in many cases by prepared ‘bombs’ which would not have been manufactured on the spot”. The bombs in question were molotov cocktails.
After two days of hearing such evidence and witness statements, and with no attempt to defend themselves made in the courtroom above Budeya Police Station, the five men of the National Union Committee were found guilty of attempting to assassinate the Ruler and his Adviser. “But it found that there was a varying degree of responsibility, and that Abdulrahman Bakir, Abdulaziz Shamlan and Abd Ali Alaywat had a greater degree of responsibility than Ibrahim Fakhro and Ibrahim bin Musa”. Bakir, Shamlan and Alaywat were sentenced to 14 years imprisonment. The two Ibrahims were sentenced to 10.
If the charges seem trumped up, if the evidence does not seem to damningly prove they had led an attempted coup in November, it certainly seemed suspect to the British, who forwarded on reports of the trial to the Foreign Office. One letter written to the Foreign Office advises that:
While this is a most useful document for our own information, its publication may make difficulties for us here in London. Although the trial of the five men was probably fair by Arab standards and there seems no reason to suppose that any substantial injustice was done to them, the proceedings do not read well to anyone used to the impartial processes of a British court. Some of the [evidence] contains damaging material, but much of it has only a tenuous connexion with the individuals on trial. There seems throughout little concrete evidence to show that any of these five men were themselves responsible for plotting the assassination of the Ruler, the murder of the Adviser or the burning of public buildings. Indeed, two of them, Fakhro and Musa, whose responsibility was held by the court to have been less, appear to have had no evidence adduced against them at all.
The Foreign Office was cautioned not to publish the papers or allow them reach Britain, lest a “spate of Parliamentary Questions” follow. No one had clean hands in this story – not the Government with their trumped up charges, not Al Bakir and Shemlan, with their loose mouths in the lead-up to the trial, and certainly not the British, who closed their eyes to the unfair trial. The two Ibrahims are the only ones to come out spotless in this mess.
Al Bakir, Shemlan and the third man, Alaywat, were sentenced to 15 years imprisonment. But where would it be served? For these three, who were deemed too dangerous to keep in Bahrain, the Ruler requested that the British dispose of them for him. The convictions must have been settled on long before the trial actually took place. Two days before the court met above Budeya Police Station, on 19 December, the Bahrain (Removal of Prisoners) Order was written in London, laid before parliament in Westminster and put into operation – all in a day’s work. This order extended the British Colonial Prisoners Removal Act 1869 to Bahrain, despite the fact that Bahrain was not a colony, but a British-protected state. Britain technically only had authority over Bahrain’s foreign policy, though as the events of November 1956 attest to, their powers extended to greater degrees.
With this act in hand, the Bahraini prisoners were deported to St Helena. They would depart at the end of December, to join the memory of Napoleon and the reality of other colonial prisoners on the claustrophobic prison-island. The bitter Adviser was glad to see them out – after all, had they not tried to have him murdered? When the Governor of St Helena wrote to Bahrain to ask what provisions needed to be made for the new inmates, this reply came back, through the conduit of Bernard Burrows, Political Resident:
The [Adivser] does not consider any special diet necessary. The prisoners should eat normal food, though diet should include some rice and exclude pork, unless they particularly request it. As Moslems, (sic) and as prisoners, they should presumably not be given alcohol. Grease should be allowed.
As regards religious needs, no special provision need be made. If the prisoners raise any particular demands in this connexion the matter should be referred to the Bahrain Government.
As regards recreation the Bahrain Government consider that [there should no special] provision for them to take exercise, walking is all that is required.
No special provisions for these men who the Bahraini state would rather forget about. It wasn’t completely inhumane: families of the imprisoned could write to them, and the imprisoned were allowed to write back, though all correspondence would go through the government for censorship.
While the two Ibrahims served less controversial sentences in a Bahraini prison, the three men in St Helena raised eyebrows. Though the British tried to keep as tight lipped as possible about the destination of the prisoners, the secret was out by the end of January 1957 – at about the same time Al Bakir, Shamlan and Alaywat would have been marching out of the prison ships to their unexceptional confines in St Helena. We know the news had leaked by then as, on 31 January 1957, those dreaded parliamentary questions were being asked about the deportation. The Foreign Secretary was not pressed too hard though, and the case seems to quickly drop off.
It was a fifteen years sentence, but the three detainees would not serve it all out. They were all free by the mid-60s. Abdulrahman Al Bakir would live out the rest of his life in Lebanon, dying in 1971. His Bahraini citizenship had been revoked by Charles Belgrave, and he would never go back to his home. Neither would Abd Ali Alaywat, who died in Iraq. Shemlan was the only one to return home, where he would achieve a new importance later in life. In 1972, he was elected as a member of the Constitutional Assembly and was made its vice-speaker, such was his political gravitas nearly twenty years on from the Committee’s years. By 1974 he would go on to become Bahrain’s ambassador in Egypt, now a member of the establishment he had been so keen to overthrow in his youth. The deportation had broken them, and all the nationalists.
But for the men and women back home, the break was in their capacity to organise effectively, not in their spirits. For that had been the Committee’s greatest strength – It would be almost 60 years before a political movement could bring out the numbers of people onto the streets on Bahrain the way the Committee could, in February 2011. But that contemporary movement cannot claim to have been as pluralistic or as effective as the Committee were. Immediately following the trial though, the nationalists had lost their clout. On 17 January, James Belgrave, son of the Adviser, reported a strike which failed to be observed by almost everyone save for the Girls School:
Miss Badria Khalfan spent two days in the Fort a few days ago, mainly because of all the people called upon to strike in the notice signed “The People” […] only the Girls Secondary School did not appear for work. As Badria and her sister are teachers there, the Police claimed that they were responsible for this, and, in fact, when Badria was interviewed by the Police, she quite openly produced innumerable Communist-like remarks about decadent capitalism, feudal landowners etc.
No one else joined the strike action. But the spirit of defiance, such as Miss Badria embodied, was not dead. Another nationalist party was on the rise. 1957 is the first year in which the British make mention of the National Liberation Front, who were beginning to pick up steam. That year, during the annual Shi’a mourning of Muharram, they released a circular:
O Muslims, O Compatriots demanding the truth, freedom and independence. We must be commandos like Al-Husain. We must rise against the modern Yazeedees, the shedders of blood, the enemies of truth, the opponents of the ways and principles of Al-Husain. We must struggle against them as did al-Husain. For the man who adopts the way of Al-Husain and fights against the enemies of those who love Al-Husain, he is the friend of Al-Husain and his beloved.
Clearly, this language was inflammatory and sectarian. The implication is that the “modern Yazeedees” is the government and the British, while the talk of Hussain, the martyred grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, speaks directly to the emotional Shi’a mourner. Despite this circular, the NLF was by and large a secular and such religiously-toned messages don’t appear to crop up in the mid-60s and 70s, when they were at their strongest. Nevertheless, it shows the extent of their anger and despair for Bahrain, which had such a promising future at the start of 1956. The Front would have a long journey ahead of them. They would go to further extremes than the Committee ever dreamed and they would suffer more than the Committee members did. But that was all in the far future.
What was no longer in the future was a Bahrain without Charles Belgrave. For thirty-one years he had ruled Bahrain as an autocratic “Adviser”, being in his own person the singular embodiment of the Government of Bahrain. He had already announced his resignation back in August 1956, but the process of actually doing so was slow. “Assuming that there was nearly a year in which to arrange the new order of things, neither the Shaikh nor I made any hurried changes.” But their hands were forced when Belgrave was rushed to hospital early in April. Whatever his sickness was, the surgeon told him he had to return to be treated in London – immediately. In one stressful week he had to pave the way for a new administration that he had thought he had a year to create. “I tried to deal with outstanding matters, which was, of course, impossible, for the moment that the news was known our house was thronged with Arab friends who came to see me […] It was very hard to say good-bye. Everybody, even the Arabs who had been opposed to me, were more kind than I could possibly have imagined; I believe they were speaking the truth when they said, when it came to the point of my leaving, that they did not want me to go.” And here is his goodbye to Bahrain, as it appears in his memoirs, Personal Column:
I had watched, and tried to guide, the development of Bahrain from an obscure little Arab state into a place of commercial and political importance. I had seen the transition of the Bahrainis from a simple agricultural and sea-faring community into a community mainly dependant on a great modern industry, the production and refining of oil. During my time the revenue had gradually increased from an annual income of about £100,000 to about £5 1/2 million a year, and I had witnessed the emergence of a political consciousness among the people and growing pains of democracy.
And so he left. And as the nationalists changed with the forced departure of their leaders, the government would change with the forced departure of theirs. It was not a democratic change. Charles Gault, the Political Agent, wrote in 27 January:
The Committee of National Union and its predecessor the High Executive Committee have from time to time demanded an elected executive or legislative council but this has never been accepted by the Bahrain Government and we ourselves have never regarded Bahrain as being ripe for such an innovation
Instead, the fully-appointed Administrative Council set up in the wake of the March crisis of 1956 would continue running, and it would come to be a major artery of the government until independence in 1971. At the end of 1957, Charles Gault would have a long conversation with Ahmad Fakhro, brother of the imprisoned Ibrahim Fakhro, who would relay his insights into how the new Belgrave-less state was running – and it was not smoothly.
He now regretted Sir Charles Belgrave’s departure because whatever might be said against him he did act as “boss” and control the Government which Mr. Smith (Belgrave’s replacement) did not. Under Sir Charles’ regime heads of departments knew that they were liable to be called to account by him for anything that was badly done or went wrong. Now they had not the same healthy respect for Mr. Smith. Ahmad Fakhroo spoke particularly of the law courts saying that Shaikh Daij who is the senior magistrate now had things pretty well his own way in the courts and gave what judgements he liked. In the past Sir Charles Belgrave would have cancelled a really unfair judgement even of Shaikh Daij but now there was nobody to do that and the people felt that the only thing they could do was to keep out of the courts since in them they would not now be able to find even the justice they had been able to find in the past.
Corruption and reactionary forces threatened to break free.
As I see it the Ruler is consciously or unconsciously profiting from his strengthened position as a result of the extinction, at least for the time being, of the Committee of National Union and what it stood for to avoid making reforms although he is loud in his protests that all he wants is the good of his country and to progress steadily but not too fast. The Al Khalifa generally, outside the Ruler […] are anxious to strengthen the position of themselves and of the ruling family in whatever way they can. Shaikh Daij no doubt follows this course too as regards the law courts. All this is seen by the people of Bahrain who also see the apparent confusion which has arisen from Sir Charles Belgrave’s departure.
The Bahraini government and the nationalists were not the only ones to be sent reeling by the changes of the last year. The British had lost power too. In the same correspondence with Ahmed Fakhro, Charles Gault reveals how the British were no longer as respected an authority as they used to be:
People in Bahrain – and [Fakhro] implies that this included most people – now had lost faith in the British because, while a few years ago we had demonstrated by our support of the reforms which the Higher Executive Committee had wanted to have introduced that we approved of such reforms, so far in fact little of such reforms had actually been introduced. The people of Bahrain regarded us as responsible for not having seen that these reforms were in fact introduced.
The strength of the British, the nationalists and the government: all had waned. In the absence left by the the strongmen and starry-eyed democrats and revolutionaries who were the protagonists of our story entered new forces. The fresh National Liberation Front was mobilising. The police force had gained a “new confidence” since the frenetic chaos of the previous year, empowered by the employment of 15 British officers within their ranks. And the Al Khalifa were rediscovering their sheikhly powers, having been reigned in by Charles Belgrave for 31 years. Now the floodgates were opened.
The peace of 1957 – and it was the most peaceful year since those Muharram clashes of 1952, five years earlier – was just a reprieve. Everyone was catching their breath. The civil conflict that had gripped Bahrain was not over, but the year of the nationalists – their greatest heights and their hardest fall – had come to a grim close.
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