Britain’s war crimes

FRFI 204 August / September 2008

‘I am left with no doubt that, at the very worst, the British Security Service instigates the illegal detention and torture of British citizens and at the very best turns a blind eye to torture.’ Tayab Ali, lawyer for two British citizens tortured in Pakistan.

In July, Labour MP John McDonnell and Conservative chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Extraordinary Rendition Andrew Tyrie, accused the government of ‘outsourcing’ interrogation to places where torture was commonplace, such as Pakistan, and of ‘watering down its “anti-torture commitments”’ (The Guardian, 21 July 2008). They also condemned the government for failing to get the US to account for the use of British air space in cases of ‘extraordinary rendition’ to places of torture and warned that Britain could no longer rely on assurances by the US itself that it does not use torture. Tyrie called for an inquiry. The shameful collusion with torture, abuse and illegality that has become the hallmark of this British government is being forced out into the open.

Collusion with torture
Between April and July 2008, The Guardian’s Ian Cobain reported the case of seven British men who had been held by Pakistani intelligence services (ISI) between 2003 and 2005 and tortured with, they believed, the full knowledge and complicity of members of British intelligence services MI5 and MI6. They include:
• Salahuddin Amin, visited and interviewed several times by two MI5 officers in between being whipped, beaten with sticks, suspended from his wrists and threatened with an electric drill.
• A British man who had three fingernails forcibly extracted by ISI; he too was then questioned by British intelligence officers.
• Tariq Mahmood, abducted in Rawalpindi in October 2003, tortured and released without charge five months later, his passport handed back to him at the airport by a man he believes was from MI5.
• A British medical student abducted at gunpoint in 2005, held for two months at the offices of the Pakistan Intelligence Bureau and tortured. Afterwards, he too was questioned by British intelligence officers. He was eventually released without charge.
• Another man tortured by ISI who recalls also being interrogated, while hooded, by people speaking English, with both British and American accents.

Meanwhile, eight men freed from Guantanamo Bay have issued writs against MI5 and MI6, alleging their complicity in their illegal detention and subsequent abuse.

Apart from such actions contravening numerous international treaties on human rights and the protection of prisoners, the British Criminal Justice Act of 1988 makes it a specific offence, punishable by life imprisonment, for a British official to instigate or consent to the inflicting of ‘severe pain or suffering’ on any person, anywhere in the world, or even acquiesce in such conduct.

Abuse in Iraq
In Iraq, the appalling litany of abuse of detainees by British soldiers continues. In early July, the Ministry of Defence was finally forced to pay out £2.8m to the family of Baha Mousa. Baha Mousa, a hotel worker, died in 2003 with 93 separate injuries on his body and his head shoved down a prison latrine after he and eight others had been beaten and abused for over 36 hours by members of the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment. Only in March did the MoD accept that there had been ‘substantive breaches’ of parts of the European Convention on Human Rights. However, only one soldier, Corporal Donald Payne, was convicted, after being acquitted of manslaughter, for ‘inhumane’ treatment. Six others were acquitted of all charges. A public inquiry into Mousa’s death is still to be held.

On 12 July, the MoD confirmed that the Royal Military Police have launched an investigation into allegations that a boy of 14 was whipped, beaten, stripped naked and made to carry out an act of oral sex on another young male prisoner in Iraq by British troops (Independent, 13 July 2008). Meanwhile, court action is going on over a series of allegations surrounding the British base Camp Breadbasket in 2003, where prisoners were photographed suspended in nets hanging from forklift trucks or forced to simulate sexual acts with each other. In May 2004, 20 Iraqi civilians were allegedly executed at the British base in Abu Naji. Five survivors are bringing a claim for damages against the MoD.

Normalising torture
Much as the MoD continues to squirm and point a finger at a few ‘rogue soldiers’, it is clear that the culture of abuse and humiliation of prisoners is being condoned at the highest level. Ever since President Bush ruled, in February 2002, that the Geneva Conventions and, by extension, all the international and national treaties and provisos banning inhumane and degrading treatment did not apply to any ‘enemy combatant’ in the ‘war on terror’, the gloves have been off.  The US has redefined the meaning of ‘torture’ and shifted the terms of the debate, to the point where the British press routinely refer to ‘the controversial technique known as “waterboarding”’ – an example of what Reza Fiyouat (Counterpunch, 15 May 2008) has described as ‘a distortion-discussion [that] is the best way of normalising really existing torture’.  Waterboarding is not the ‘dunk in the water’ jovially dismissed by Donald Rumsfeld, architect of the framework for legalised torture – but a technique designed to simulate drowning. Arch-sceptic Christopher Hitchens, who bought into the US line of a qualititative difference between ‘extreme interrogation’ (valid, he claimed, for ‘high-value detainees’) and ‘outright torture’, tried out water-boarding in controlled conditions and concluded ‘Believe me, it’s torture’ (Vanity Fair, May 2008). We are told that in a time of global war, new rules apply. But the point about the Geneva Conventions was that they were precisely to be applied in that most testing of moral quagmires, a time of war and heightened national security. We must be clear: the inhumane and barbaric treatment that is being meted out to those perceived by the US and Britain as their enemies in the war on terror are war crimes of the highest order and we must hold our governments accountable.

In a sinister new development, the US Supreme Court has upheld the right of the President of the United States to designate citizens and non-citizens alike as ‘enemy combatants’ stripped of all rights, and hold them indefinitely, with only recourse to ‘military commission’ type tribunals. As investigative journalist Robert Parry points out ( ‘The war is a ‘war on terror’ that can go on indefinitely and the ‘battlefield’ is the world...actually this means the president has the right to do whatever he wants to whomever he wants wherever that person might be, virtually forever’. O, brave new world.
Cat Alison