Iraq - Britain’s torture policy – Jan 2013

Baha Mousa

On 29 January, the statements of nearly 200 Iraqis will go before a judicial review hearing at the High Court in London in a case intended to show that Britain deliberately pursued a policy of systematic torture and abuse during its occupation of Iraq between 2003 and 2008.

The initial 180 statements – with 871 to follow – were made by those who suffered abuse at the hands of British soldiers and intelligence officers and by relatives of those unlawfully killed. They include appalling details of hoodings, beatings, starvation, forced nakedness, threats of rape and execution, stress positions and violence against wives and children of detainees. They also reveal a consistent narrative of deeply sadistic sexual humiliation and torture that the journalist John Pilger has called ‘the signature of fascism’. One man describes how his elderly father was paralysed with a blow from a rifle. When his own young son went to his grandfather’s aid, soldiers stamped on his head. Many survivors say that other detainees were beaten to death. Iraqi soldiers who surrendered to the British, supposedly protected by the Geneva Conventions, were forced to sit for hours in the glaring heat, beaten, photographed going to the toilet and menaced by army dogs (Ed Vulliamy, The Observer, Sunday 20 January 2013). Most of the worst abuses took place at British facilities in Iraq named as Battlecamp Main, Camp Stephen, Camp Bucca and Camp Breadbasket, but there were also incidents at people’s homes and on the streets. The military intelligence unit, Joint Forward Intelligence Team, had its own torture centre, where, between interrogation sessions, detainees were dragged round an assault course by their bound thumbs (Ian Cobain, The Guardian, 20 December 2012).

The legal campaign, headed by civil rights lawyer Phil Shiner, wants the high court to rule that what was in operation was a systemic, state-authorised policy of torture, with responsibility reaching up through senior command level to the government itself, putting Britain in breach of international laws. Such a ruling would trigger a public inquiry.

Whitewash, lies and videotapes

The British government is desperate to avoid a public inquiry. The last public inquiry, into the beating to death by British soldiers of Iraqi hotel worker Baha Mousa in 2003, revealed an endemic culture of brutality and callous indifference that permeated far up the command chain, despite resulting in only one conviction. Shamefully, Corporal Donald Payne (the only serving officer to be convicted of a war crime in Iraq) served just one year in jail while six others either had the charges dropped or were acquitted. The army doctor, Derek Keilloh, who saw ‘no injuries’ on Baha Mousa shortly before his death, has simply been struck of the medical register.

But it is precisely to prevent any more exposure of Britain’s dirty and illegal policies in the so-called ‘War against Terror’ that the current government has spent the last three years paying out at least £14 million to silence hundreds of Iraqi torture victims - £8.3 million in the last year alone - with hundreds more cases in the pipeline. Even the feeble Gibson Inquiry into British security service collusion with torture, set up as a whitewash exercise, was scrapped. Now the government is attempting to push through legislation for secret court hearings to ensure no further evidence of its crimes ever emerges.

And so the Ministry of Defence continues to blatantly lie, contending that the hundreds of Iraqis who have come forward represent isolated incidents of which senior commanders were unaware, and that, as the Ministry of Defence puts it, the majority of British personnel serving in Iraq ‘have conducted themselves with the highest standards of integrity and professionalism’. It claims that its own Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT), established in 2010, is sufficient to mop up any remaining allegations.

IHAT is staffed by Royal Military Police, a force itself implicated in abuse of detainees. One IHAT official, Louise Thomas, resigned at the end of last year, calling its operations ‘little more than a whitewash’. I saw a really dark side of the British army ,’ she told The Guardian in October 2012. ‘The videos [of interrogation sessions] showed really quite terrible abuses. But some of the IHAT investigators just weren't interested.’

Expose the war criminals

Hundreds of hours of taped interrogations such as the ones Thomas refers to will be presented in evidence at the High Court, bearing out the gruesome details of the witness statements. Shiner says the evidence will prove 5 illegal state practices, starting with ‘the use of trained coercive interrogation techniques, as a matter of policy’ and that such knowledge went right to the top, with the training being mainly carried out at the Chicksands army intelligence base in Britain. He told The Observer, ‘We’ve got the training materials, we’ve got the policy documents…Violence was endemic to the state practices and part of the state practices’. He plans also to demonstrate a failure to meet international obligations in relation to prisoners of war, the illegal use of lethal force during occupation and a programme of strike operations against civilians. ‘We say to the ministry and government: “Don’t say you didn’t know – what you can do is explain why you failed to do anything about it”.’

It is clear that in Britain’s war against Iraq and the subsequent occupation the number 1 priority for troops was, as it was in Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s, to terrorise and subjugate the population. This was sanctioned as official, if secret, policy by the then Labour government of Tony Blair and has subsequently been covered up, at the cost of millions of pounds, by the Coalition. It is thanks to tireless campaigning by former detainees and their relatives, by human rights activists and by principled lawyers that there is now the possibility of a public inquiry to expose the role of the British state. One of the barristers in the case, Michael Fordham QC, says that while the Baha Mousa inquiry ‘may have shone a torch into a dark corner’, what is now before the court is more like ‘a stadium in which we will switch on the floodlights’. Britain’s state war criminals gave the green light for the most grotesque torture and depravity, systematically carried out against civilians and soldiers alike, and should have nowhere left to hide.

Cat Allison


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