Iraq: Britain responsible for prisoner abuse

July 26, 2008

The British Ministry of Defence (MoD) on July 10 agreed to a payout of £2.83 million to ten Iraqi victims tortured in custody by British soldiers in Basra in 2003.

Most of the money will go to the family and orphaned children of Baha Mousa, a 26-year-old man who was beaten to death by the Queen's Lancashire Regiment soldiers in September 2003.

Mousa, a receptionist at Basra's Ibn al-Haitham Hotel, was arrested with colleagues during a weapons raid at his workplace. He suffered 93 injuries during his 36 hours in custody, including a broken nose and fractured ribs. He was double-hooded with hessian sacks in stifling-hot temperatures and died as a result of asphyxiation caused by the stress position he was forced to maintain by his captors.

The 10 victims were all subjected to the infamous and outlawed "five techniques", honed to perfection by the British army during their interrogation and torture of Irish republican prisoners in the early 1970s — hooding, stress positions, subjection to noise and deprivation of sleep, food and drink.

Child abused

Immediately following this MoD settlement, further revelations of British abuse of Iraqi prisoners came to light on July 13 when 11 Iraqi torture victims launched a court action. Among them is a young man, now aged 19, who alleges that he was sexually abused in custody in 2003 when he was only 14 years old.

The man, who is identified only as "Hassan", was kicked, beaten with a car aerial, stripped naked and then forced to perform oral sex on another boy at Camp Breadbasket near Basra. They had been seized with other youths by British forces when they had tried to steal powdered milk from the base to sell on the black market.

In his statement describing the ordeal, Hassan says, "They were enjoying humiliating and abusing us. I wished I was dead at this moment." Afterwards, he said, "I fled Basra altogether as I cannot see Tariq again after what had happened, despite the fact that we were close friends."

In May, the British defence secretary finally agreed to hold a public inquiry into the death in custody of Mousa. Phil Shiner, who represents both Mousa's family and Hassan, has demanded that the inquiry be expanded to cover the Camp Breadbasket abuse.

No aberration

While the appalling treatment of Iraqi prisoners at the hands of the US occupation forces is widely known, through the widespread publication of photos from Abu Ghraib prison in 2004, the British military has tried to maintain a more humane image.

With its public relations office in damage control during a
spectacularly bad week for the reputation of the British army, an MoD spokesperson said: "All but a handful of the more than 120,000 British troops who have served in Iraq have conducted themselves to the highest standards of behaviour, displaying integrity and selfless commitment.

"All allegations of abuse are investigated thoroughly and — where proven — those responsible are punished and the abused are compensated."

But the limited amount of evidence that has come to light proves that these cases are no aberration. They are the inevitable outcome of institutionalised prisoner abuse by occupying soldiers — which is, in turn, based on the official policy and colonial mindset of the British government.

It was only in 2007 that the British government ruled that the human rights act that covers British citizens also applies to those being held in British custody overseas.

Further cases are now being heard in British courts over several cases of murder, torture and sexual abuse of Iraqis by British soldiers. Among others, these include claims by five survivors of a May 2004 incident in which 20 Iraqi civilian prisoners were allegedly executed at a British army base in Abu Naji.

There are also claims that during Operation "Ali Baba", aimed at capturing looters in May 2003, British soldiers suspended prisoners in nets from forklift trucks, and forced prisoners to strip naked and simulate sex. Photos were later uncovered of the abuse and four soldiers were jailed for up to two years in 2005.

Another case brought to court involves 15-year-old Ahmer Jabbar Kareem, who was drowned while being forced to swim a canal by British soldiers. Five Iraqis are also pursuing damages over abuse and hooding in April 2007.

The Iraq League's Mazin Younis, who has gathered statements from survivors of abuse in Basra, now has more than 80 cases of allegations against British troops, which will be taken to the European Court of Human Rights. Shiner is involved in 46 cases against the British military in Iraq.

At the 2006 court martial prompted by Mousa's killing, one of seven soldiers from the Queen's Lancashire Regiment charged with negligence and abuse pleaded guilty to treating Mousa "inhumanely". He served one year in prison and is now running a business in England.

The other six soldiers charged, including the commanding officer of the regiment, were acquitted of all charges. The judge accused the soldiers of erecting a "wall of silence" surrounding the death.

NATO policy

The evidence that emerged through the Mousa court martial shows that interrogators were trained in stressing and hooding detainees. It was "verbal and written NATO policy". The court heard that the "conditioning" techniques were sanctioned by officers at brigade headquarters and they were cleared with the chain of command.

The US and British military both regularly used the "five techniques" in interrogation, as well as systematic sexual abuse and humiliation — abuse specifically designed to psychologically torture Islamic prisoners by stripping them of their dignity and self-respect.

Shiner argued: "At the heart of the US and UK project is a desire to avoid accountability for what they want to do. Guantanamo Bay and extraordinary renditions are part of the same struggle to avoid accountability through jurisdiction."

He said the British army practices the same torture techniques as the US army does, and deny that British and international human rights legislation apply to them.

An internal British army investigation in January found that the soldiers involved in the Mousa detention "had not been informed of their obligations under international law" and "had not been told that the interrogation techniques set out in old army manuals were prohibited in 1972".

In reality, the MoD has made the decision that the banned torture techniques were really only to be restricted from use in Britain and the north of Ireland, and that they were free to use them in other countries where Britain is fighting colonial wars.

There are currently more than 20,000 Iraqi prisoners in the custody of US-British occupation forces.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.