Let us see our cruelty more clearly

Horror: Cases of abuse have shocked the public, but been handled poorly by the military. (AFP)

Horror: Cases of abuse have shocked the public, but been handled poorly by the military. (AFP)

Not long after the 2003 invasion of Iraq Lieutenant Colonel Nicholas Mercer, then the British military’s most senior lawyer in the country, paid a visit to an interrogation centre the army’s intelligence corps had established near Basra.

He was appalled by what he saw. About 40 handcuffed Iraqis were being forced to squat on the ground with their hands cuffed high behind their backs. Dark-blue hoods covered their heads and, nearby, a generator was running.
Later, in a statement to the inquiry into the death of Baha Mousa, Mercer described what he saw as “repulsive” and added: “It’s a bit like seeing a picture of Guantanamo Bay for the first time. It is quite a shock.”

Mercer warned the interrogators that the use of hooding had been banned three decades earlier, and that it would impair the detainees’ breathing. He was told, however, that the use of hoods and stress positions “was in accordance with British army doctrine on tactical questioning”.

Mercer suspects the generators were intended to muffle the sound of whatever was happening inside the tents where interrogations took place. He may well have been correct.

A few years into the occupation the Intelligence Corps began making videos of its interrogations in Iraq. At least 2 626 recordings were made and one investigator who watched them said that they contained images that included “the good, the bad and the ugly”.

The films show detainees being threatened, intimidated, subjected to sensory deprivation and complaining of starvation. One video shows a prisoner protesting that he is in pain. The interrogator shouts: “Good. I hope you die of cancer. I hope your kids die.”

Guards at the interrogation centre have said that between interrogation sessions – and out of sight of the cameras – they were ordered to kick the prisoners and strike them with rifle butts while forcing them, blindfolded, around obstacle courses.

As the evidence mounted, the ministry of defence appeared increasingly nervous that the high court could conclude that the abuse was systemic, arising out of the training of troops and the instructions they had received, rather than the work of small numbers of “rogue” service personnel.

Four years ago – as part of an attempt to persuade the courts that they did not need to order a wide-ranging public inquiry – the defence ministry established the Iraq Historic Allegations Team to investigate complaints from detainees. The team is currently investigating 93 allegations of mistreatment involving 179 people. No one has been charged with any serious offence. One man was fined after he was filmed beating an Iraqi.

Waste of public money
Some MPs complain that the absence of any charges suggests that the allegation team’s £35.7-million budget is a waste of public money; lawyers for former detainees say the failure to prosecute is evidence that a more effective investigation is needed.

The team is not just examining allegations of mistreatment of detainees. The defence ministry admitted in 2010 that at least seven Iraqi civilians had died in British military custody, in addition to Baha Mousa. The team is now examining 52 allegations of unlawful killing involving 63 deaths, some of them individuals who were in custody.

The deaths include one that the Guardian examined in detail in 2011 and 2012.

Tariq Sabri al-Fahdawi was one of 64 men detained at a roadblock shortly after the invasion and taken to a prison in western Iraq that was being run by United States, British and Australian special forces. The existence of the prison was concealed from both military lawyers such as Mercer, and the Red Cross.

The men had been hooded, their thumbs were bound together, and they were being ferried to the prison aboard Royal Air Force Chinook helicopters. Fahdawi died aboard one of the helicopters, allegedly kicked to death by air force troops after he managed to slip out of the plastic ties around his thumbs.

The Guardian discovered that the air force police who conducted the initial investigation waited more than a year before asking a pathologist whether they should exhume Fahdawi’s body. When the air force pathologist said they should not – a decision that surprised a civilian pathologist – Royal Air Force prosecutors decided there was not enough evidence to bring any charges.

Documents from the case obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and through leaks showed that the air force police had failed even to establish the dead man’s name. – © Guardian News & Media 2014

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