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Saturday, January 26, 2008 

Aitken report: the rusty sword and shield of British fair play.

The Aitken report (PDF) on the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners by British forces is typical of almost all of the inquiries ordered by New Labour since it came to power, and especially those ordered post-the Iraq war. With the exception of the Hutton report, which was the most crude whitewash, most of the other reports have been critical of the government, but in their conclusions found that no one in particular was personally to blame.

So it continues here. Aitken finds that there were serious failings in army leadership, planning and training, but no one is personally responsible, and the Ministry of Defence are able to trump loudly that all the recommendations made by Aitken have either been implemented or that the lessons have been learned. After all, there have been no cases of ill-treatment reported since 2004, says the report on page 5, but that might because since then they haven't personally been involved in running prisons or detaining suspects.

The report makes much of how the soldiers had not been trained adequately in how to handle detainees prior to their deploy to Iraq, or how the rules and practices on interrogating detainees set out in the MoD's policy document still doesn't make unambiguously clear that the "five techniques" (wall-standing; hooding; subjection to noise; deprivation of sleep; deprivation of food and drink) are illegal under international law and proscribed by the Human Rights Act, but most astounding is this paragraph from page 13:

22. We need also to be clear about a different but related form of training, given to some members of the Army, in Conduct After Capture (CAC). CAC training simulates the sort of treatment that our people might receive from an enemy that does not comply with international humanitarian law, and therefore introduces participants to illegal I&TQ techniques; and in 2003, attendance on CAC training qualified an individual to conduct I&TQ. In 2005, the Army revised that policy, arguing that exposure to illegal I&TQ methods was not a sensible way to prepare an individual for conducting lawful I&TQ.

Really? What could have possibly made them come to such a conclusion? Oh, this:


Even considering the above, what still isn't explained by this report is how the "five techniques" and beyond became to be apparently authorised by the chain of command. Colonel Jorge Mendonca, one of those charged over the death of Baha Mousa, happened upon prisoners being "conditioned" by soldiers, and understandably concerned, checked with Major Anthony Royle that such practices had been authorised. Royle said they had been, and gave evidence at the court martial that it had been. Nothing in this report explains whether this is accurate or a lie by Royle. What we do know is that US commanders had criticised British forces in 2003 prior to Mousa's death because of the failure to "extract sufficient intelligence from detainees". Whether this lead to a change in the policy, which quickly resulted in the abuses we're now all too aware of or not is still unknown.

What is known, is that for whatever reason, soldiers took it upon themselves to mistreat Iraqi prisoners, whether they were looters or alleged looters in the case of those photographed at Camp Breadbasket, or alleged insurgents in the case of Baha Mousa. You don't need to be trained in interrogating or holding prisoners to know that almost any mistreatment of them is in breach of the Geneva convention - and the beatings administered to Mousa, resulting in 92 separate injuries, went far beyond mistreatment into out and out torture. His death cannot be put down to an understandable mistake in the fog of war; this was manslaughter at best, murder at worst, and the beating went on in front of the noses of all ranks and none. At the court martial it was even suggested that soldiers and officers from across the base came to witness Donald Payne, the only person convicted after pleading guilty, of "playing" the detainees, taking it in turns to beat them, relishing and mocking their cries. A video recording of Payne forcing the three into stress positions and shouting at them was shown to the court.

To add insult to manslaughter, almost all of those called to give evidence or asked for their account of what happened on that day claimed that they "couldn't remember", a term according to Payne's lawyer which was used over 600 times in total during the hearing. The judge was forced into clearing all the others charged down to what he called a "closing of ranks". Some of the ferocity of the soldiers' treatment of Mousa and the other two detainees can be put down to the belief that all three were insurgents and had been involved in the death of one of their popular comrades, something that was later found to be baseless on both counts.

Make no mistake though: imagine that this had been "yobs" in this country carrying out a similar crime where they beat a father to death and recorded some of it on their mobile phones, or the police trying to force a confession out of someone through violence that they had arrested who was entirely innocent. If it had been the former and only one person was ever convicted and then sentenced to only a year in prison, there would have been outrage. If it had involved the police, there would have been similar investigations to that of the death of Jean Charles de Menezes, and probably someone actually being held to account, unlike in that particular case. Instead, as Jeremy Vine described when introducing the Panorama investigating Mousa's death, to go by some of the reporting of the court martial you would have thought that no one had died, that beatings had not taken place and that the soldiers involved, whether they were those who were tried or not, had been wrongly maligned. Nothing could be further from the truth, yet now the defence secretary Des Browne has stated that no one else is likely to be charged, and that the only thing Mousa's family can look to draw solace from will be an inquiry that will be set-up into his death. This was our Abu Ghraib, and while only the grunts in that scandal were ever convicted while the higher-ups that authorised the "Gitmoisation" got off scot-free, in our case, everyone may as well have escaped without almost a blemish on their character. This report has done nothing whatsoever to correct that.

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