Britain’s Abu Ghraib
The allegations of torture by British soldiers in Iraq bear chilling comparison with America’s worst excesses
The inquiry into the death of Baha Mousa is due to report by the end of the year. It will detail how Mousa died in Iraq in September 2003, allegedly brutalised by British soldiers in a “free for all”; and how it was that he and nine other men in the same incident were allegedly hooded, forced into painful stress positions, and deprived of sleep, food and water.
The Guardian article this week, which reported that many more civilians died in army custody than previously thought, should shock the conscience of the nation. The evidence of Lieutenant Colonel Mercer to the inquiry reveals that as early as May 2003 – four months before Mousa’s death – there were “a number of deaths in custody” with “various units”. It appears there were, by then, at least nine deaths. The Ministry of Defence refuses to answer questions from us or the Guardian as to where, how or why these Iraqis died, and refuses to confirm or deny whether any of these deaths were ever investigated and if so with what outcome.
Although we are acting for one family referred to in the article, we have no idea about the other cases. And the story could be a lot worse: an ex-Royal Military Police (RMP) major told BBC radio last October that there were “hundreds” of similar cases.
Further, there are thousands of torture allegations being made by more than 100 Iraqi clients in new cases. We applaud the efforts of those who have succeeded in obtaining an inquiry into alleged British complicity in torture by various overseas regimes. But the public and the government also need to face up to our history of actual torture. The evidence from the Mousa inquiry and the allegations in these other cases may allow a chilling comparison to be made with the worst excesses of the US at Guantánamo Bay or Abu Ghraib, with the Stasi in the cold war, or the British in post-colonial wars.
Apart from the techniques banned by the Heath government in 1972 (hooding, stressing, food and water deprivation, sleep deprivation, the use of noise), which returned as standard operating procedure in Iraq, the array of allegations is staggering: mock executions; the use of tiny refrigerated spaces; electric shocks; forced nudity; threats of rape to female relatives; prolonged solitary confinement; loud, hardcore pornography played incessantly; disorientation by various means; simulated drowning; dog attacks; masturbation and other sexual acts; urinating on detainees; giving urine not water to drink; as well as systematic abuse through rifle-butting, kicks, punches, forced exertion and prolonged shouting at detainees.
The MoD insists our brave soldiers behaved impeccably save for a few rotten apples and that there is no evidence of coercive interrogation techniques. Now the Iraq historic allegation team, comprising of RMP investigators and others, will investigate whether anyone should be prosecuted by a military court martial.
However, these other deaths in custody are not being investigated; the thousands of allegations of the use of coercive interrogation make it difficult to see how much more evidence of systemic issues is needed; and the RMP is a discredited and failed organisation that is incapable of dealing with these cases, and in any event its soldiers are the subject of some of the allegations.
The damage caused to the French in Algeria by its use of torture is well known. The same damage may have been caused to the British battle for Iraqi hearts and minds. To perpetuate that damage by this alleged cover-up would be immeasurably stupid: as we now know from Bloody Sunday, when the state is involved in wrongdoing the nation requires not a Widgery but a Saville.
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