British police enter the Bahrain embassy

Summary: a stunt by a Bahraini protester against the recent executions raises important questions.

Our posting of 29 July considered the execution on 26 July of two opposition activists in Bahrain. We missed an important incident which took place the previous day.

Late on 25 July another Bahraini opposition activist Musa Muhammad climbed the scaffolding on a five-storey building next to the Bahrain embassy in London and from there got on to the roof of the embassy. He unfurled a banner reading: “I am risking my life to save two men about to be executed in the next few hours. Boris Johnson act now!” and shouted “Boris Johnson wake up, prime minister, wake up”. Supporters gathered in the street below. A second man was then seen on the roof, and there was a glimpse of what might have been a stick or another weapon. Muhammad began shouting for help. The police then broke open the embassy door and entered the embassy. Muhammad was brought out and arrested, and later charged with trespass and released on police bail. In an interview published on Channel 4 TV on 7 August he said that he had been assaulted with a plank of wood and threatened by two men on the roof and had feared for his life when they held him down and tried to suffocate him.

The incident was filmed in detail, and reported on Channel 4, and in the Independent and briefly by Reuters in a report of the executions on 27 July. According to a Guardian report more than a week later on 7 August, the only other media report we have seen, a statement by the Bahrain embassy praised staff for responding with “professionalism and courage”, dismissed as ridiculous Muhammad’s accusations that they were trying to kill him, and said an “objective view of this incident would determine that peaceful and lawful protest does not take place on the roof of a diplomatic premises at 10.30pm”.

The action of the police in breaking into the embassy was prima facie a breach of article 22, paragraph 1, of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (which is incorporated into British law): “The premises of the mission shall be inviolable. The agents of the receiving State may not enter them, except with the consent of the head of the mission.” The police action seems to be unprecedented, at least in modern times.

The inviolability rule has frequently been called into question in connection with past incidents. The storming of the Iranian embassy in London by the SAS in 1980 was at the request of the Iranians, after the embassy had been occupied by armed oppositionists, and therefore did not test the rule. In 1984 machine-gun fire from the Libyan People’s Bureau (embassy equivalent) killed a police officer and wounded a number of Libyan demonstrators, but the police did not attempt to enter the premises. Also in 1984 the Nigerians in collaboration with Mossad attempted to transport a former minister out of the UK in a diplomatic bag, but the attempt was foiled without any breach of the Vienna Convention.

Following the two incidents in 1984 the UK government passed a new law in 1987, the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act, which gave the Secretary of State some new powers in relation to diplomatic and consular missions and premises but did not undermine the principles of the Vienna Convention or seek to amend it.

The murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate-General in Istanbul also raised the question of immunity of premises. The Vienna Convention on Consular Relations limits the personal inviolability of consular officers by excepting the case of a grave crime (article 41), and the inviolability of premises by excepting the “case of fire or other disaster requiring prompt protective action” (article 31). Neither of these exceptions directly affects the Bahrain case, since the premises were diplomatic not consular. But following the Khashoggi murder the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary killings Agnes Callamard published a report in June which criticises both Saudi and Turkish actions and by implication at least calls into question the principle of immunity – “Guarantees of immunity were never intended to facilitate the commission of a crime…” and later “Ultimately, the killing of Mr Khashoggi raises important questions regarding the legal implementation and limitations of the diplomatic immunity guarantees…”

For the present at least most commentators accept that the absolute principle of the inviolability of premises should be maintained. In this latest case Bahrain would have every right to complain that the principle has been breached. But the tone of the initial reaction suggests that they may not do so. The lack of media interest in what was both a newsworthy drama and an important precedent is surprising.

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