The Act of 1869
Before coming to the next event in the story, it will be necessary to say something of the Colonial Prisoners Removal Act, because it is on this and attendant British statutes that so much of the legal side of this affair depends. The Act, passed in 1869, was designed to deal with cases in which citizens of British colonies, sentenced to imprisonment, could not very well serve their terms in the colony of sentence; either because their continued presence there, imprisoned, might cause unrest, or because facilities for secure long-term imprisonment were lacking in some colonies. The Act therefore provided that, with the sanction of an Order in Council, a prisoner convicted in one colony might be transferred to serve his sentence in another. It was provided that the sanction of the Order in Council, under which the 'transfer' was affected, should come into force as soon as it had been published in the appropriate colony, and that when the sanction had been given the actual transfer of the prisoner might be effected under a warrant signed by the governor of the 'exporting' colony and addressed to the master of the ship that was to take the prisoner, or to some other appropriate person. And finally the Act declared that prisoners should be subject in the 'importing' colony to all laws and regulations, and should be dealt with in exactly the same manner, as would be applicable if they had been tried and sentenced in the 'importing' country.
Now this Act did not, of course, apply to foreign countries, not even those under British protection. By the Foreign Jurisdiction Act of 1890, however, it was provided that various existing Statutes applying to Britain and the colonies might be applied to foreign territories in which there was British jurisdiction, and the Foreign Jurisdiction Act, 1913, adds to the list of such statutes the Colonial Prisoners Removal Act of 1989.
And, to summarise the position regarding British jurisdiction in Bahrain, it extends to cases involving British subjects and cases involving both British and local subjects; these latter cases go, either (with the necessary concurrence of the Political Resident) to the local Bahraini courts, or to the special British Joint Court for hearing such 'mixed' cases.
To return from the general to the particular, the prisoners having been arrested on November 2 and 3, nothing further happened until, on December 1, Sir Charles Belgrave (the Ruler's Officer, not the British Government's) orally asked Sir Bernard Burrows, British Political Resident for the Persian Gulf, whether the British Government would be willing for five men who were about to be tried 'for sedition or treason' to undergo their imprisonment, if they were convicted, in a British possession. On December 18 Sir Bernard Burrows replied that this could be arranged, and that the authorities in St. Helena had expressed willingness to have the prisoners.
But on the same day, December 18, Sir Charles Belgrave, on behalf of the Ruler, handed to the Resident, for transmission to the British Government, the following astonishing document: To Her Majesty the Queen of Britain. May God preserve and keep her. In view of the ancient friendship long existing between Her Majesty's Government and us we request assistance from time to time in removing certain persons sentenced in our court to a safe place outside Bahrain for imprisonment for the appointed sentence. We beseech you to allow us to make arrangements with the Governor of the island of St. Helena for the reception of the persons who will be sent to that island in accordance with the sentence decided. Always, your Majesty, placing confidence in a response to our request. May God keep you in his care.
Now in the first place the Ruler's statement that 'we request assistance from time to time in removing certain persons sentenced in our court to a safe place outside Bahrain for imprisonment...' is simply untrue; he had never before made any such request. Much worse, however, is the implication contained in the reference to the reception in St. Helena of 'the persons who will be sent to that island in accordance with the sentence decided'. For this request was not only made five days before the 'trial' took place; it was made four days before the court set up to convict the prisoners was even called into being. In other words, the Ruler knew perfectly well what the 'verdict' would be, and the 'court' was merely there to rubber-stamp this.
The Family Trial
And a scrutiny of the 'trial' shows that his confidence was not misplaced. To begin with, the Ruler removed the case from the ordinary Bahraini courts and set up a special ad hoc court to deal with it. This court consisted of three judges (there is no trial by jury in Bahrain); they were Sheikh Abdullah, Sheikh Daij, and Sheikh Ali. All three of them are relatives of the Ruler. This family gathering, instead of hearing the case in Manamah, the normal seat of what passes for justice in Bahrain, went to a small place some miles away, called Budeya, ostensibly on the grounds that the disturbances made Manamah unsuitable. The defendants declared that the court was improperly constituted and that the trial should take place in Manamah. These contentions were naturally rejected by the Ruler's relatives, and the defendants therefore refused to enter a defence, call witnesses or address the court. One of the defendants, Al Bakir, said that he wished to make a statement provided that certain people not present (through whom alone he could hope to get the facts of the situation publicised), were brought to the court. The Ruler's relatives refused this, too, and proceeded to convict all five of the defendants of all the charges brought against them. The evidence brought against the prisoners was not of a kind that would have been entertained by any British court. The three now on St. Helena were sentenced to 14 years imprisonment, the other two to 10 years. The only right of appeal they had was to the ruler personally, and having refused the jurisdiction of a court composed of his relatives, they were doubtless not disposed to try their luck with him. At any rate, no appeal was lodged.
To be continued...