A short history of British torture
ICC | December 2005
When the House of Commons was debating how much to increase the time limit for detention without trial the question of torture came up. Officially this was limited to the nice considerations of whether it was all right to send people to places where torture is used and whether Britain can use information collected by the use of torture in other countries. This discussion gave an impression of democratic Britain as the home of civilised behaviour where the very idea of torture is repugnant to our legislators – unlike, say, the US with its secret CIA jails and where Cheney has been labelled the ‘Vice President for Torture’. In reality, the British state has a long history of using and developing a whole range of torture techniques.
Interrogation in Northern Ireland
Between 1971 and 1975 more than 2000 people were interned without trial by the state in Northern Ireland. Picked up without having any charges laid, or knowing when they were going to be released, detainees were subject to all sorts of treatments, some coming under the heading of ‘interrogation in depth’. Apart from prolonged sessions of oppressive questioning, serious threats, wrist bending, choking and beatings, there were instances of internees being forced to run naked over broken glass and being thrown, tied and hooded, out of helicopters a few feet above the ground. The ‘five techniques’ at the centre of the interrogators’ work were: sensory deprivation through being hooded (often while naked); being forced to stand against walls (sometimes for over 20 hours and even for more than 40); being subjected to continuous noise (from machinery such as generators or compressors for periods of up to 6 or 7 days); deprivation of food and water; sleep deprivation for periods of up to week. Relays of interrogation teams were used against the victims.
The British state tried to discredit reports of torture. Stories were fed to the media about injuries being self-inflicted – “one hard-line Provisional was given large whiskies and a box of king-size cigarettes for punching himself in both eyes” (Daily Telegraph, 31/10/77). There were indeed instances of self-harm, but these were either suicide attempts or done with the hope of being transferred to hospital accommodation.
Then the press said that any measures were justified if they helped to ‘prevent violence’. They contrasted “ripping out fingernails, beating people with steel rods and applying electric shocks to their genitalia” (Daily Telegraph 3/9/76), examples of “outright brutality”, with the measures used in Northern Ireland.
In 1978 the European Court of Human Rights said that the techniques Britain had used caused “intense physical and mental suffering and … acute psychiatric disturbance”, but that while this was “inhuman and degrading treatment” it didn’t amount to torture. This was a victory for the British state because it was keen to use means that would cause the maximum distress to the victim with the minimum external evidence. They had been previously referred to the European Court over torture in Cyprus, but in fact British interrogators had been using various combinations of the ‘five techniques’ for a long time. When the army and RUC approached Northern Ireland’s Prime Minister, Brian Faulkner, for formal approval “They told him that the ‘in-depth’ techniques they planned to use were those the army had used … many times before when Britain was faced with insurgencies in her colonies, including Palestine, Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus, the British Cameroons, Brunei, British Guyana, Aden, Borneo, Malaysia and the Persian Gulf” (Provos The IRA and Sinn Fein Peter Taylor).
By any means deemed necessary
British intervention in the Malayan ‘emergency’ in the 1950s has been held up as a model of suppression and ‘counter-insurgency’. Apart from the camps established, the murder squads, use of rigid food controls, burning down villages and the imposition of emergency regulations, the use of torture was an integral part of British operations. With 650,000 people uprooted and ‘resettled’ in New Villages, or put in concentration camps, there was also a programme of ‘re-education’.
British action in Kenya in the 1950s also showed what British civilisation was prepared to do. At various times over 90,000 ‘suspects’ were imprisoned, in either detention camps or ‘protected villages’. At one point Nairobi (population 110,000) was emptied, with 16,500 then detained and 2,500 expelled to reserves. Assaults and violence, often to the point of death, were extensive. As in Malaya, ‘rehabilitation’ was one of the goals of the operation. More than 1000 people were hanged, using a mobile gallows that was taken round the country. Overall, maybe 100-150,000 died through exhaustion, disease, starvation and systematic brutality.
Recent revelations in The Guardian (12/11/5) concerned a secret torture centre, the “London Cage”, that operated between July 1940 and September 1948. Three houses in Kensington were used to interrogate some 3500 German officers, soldiers and civilians. Still in use for three years after the end of the war, interrogation included beatings, being forced to stand to attention for up to 26 hours, threats of execution or unnecessary surgery, starvation, sleep deprivation, dousings with cold water etc. “In one complaint lodged at the National Archives, a 27-year-old German journalist being held at this camp said he had spent two years as a prisoner of the Gestapo. And not once, he said, did they treat him as badly as the British.”
There is a continuity in the British state’s actions. The Lieutenant Colonel in charge of the ‘London Cage’ received an OBE for his interrogation work in the First World War. In the 1950s there were reports of Britain experimenting with drugs, surgery and torture with a view to designing techniques that would be effective but look harmless. In the 1970s thousands of army officers and senior civil servants were trained to use psychological techniques for security purposes. Inevitably, the truth about current activities is not in the public domain.
In general, British democracy has been better than others at concealing the brutal way its state functions. Anything that is exposed is denied or dismissed as being an isolated excess. In France the extensive use of torture in the war in Algeria was publicised as part of a battle between different factions of the colonial aparatus. Victims had hoses inserted in their mouths and their stomachs filled with water, electrodes were put on genitals, heads were immersed in water. During the Battle of Algiers 3-4000 people ‘disappeared’: fatal victims of French torture techniques.
Although France, and more recently the US in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, have been less successful than Britain in keeping their actions under wraps, all these “democracies” use the most brutal methods of interrogation and detention. They also learn from each other’s activities, most notably in Vietnam, where the US drew on British experience in Malaya as much as earlier French experience in Indo-China.