Detainees were starved, deprived of sleep and threatened with execution at JFIT facilities near Basra, high court told
Evidence of the alleged systematic and brutal mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners at a secret British military interrogation centre that is being described as “the UK’s Abu Ghraib” emerged yesterday during high court proceedings brought by more than 200 former inmates.
The court was told there was evidence that detainees were starved, deprived of sleep, subjected to sensory deprivation and threatened with execution at the shadowy facilities near Basra operated by the Joint Forces Interrogation Team, or JFIT.
It also received allegations that JFIT’s prisoners were beaten, forced to kneel in stressful positions for up to 30 hours at a time, and that some were subjected to electric shocks. Some of the prisoners say that they were subject to sexual humiliation by women soldiers, while others allege that they were held for days in cells as small as one metre square.
Michael Fordham QC, for the former inmates, said the question needed to be asked: “Is this Britain’s Abu Ghraib?”
The evidence of abuse is emerging weeks after defence officials admitted that British soldiers and airmen are suspected of being responsible for the murder and manslaughter of a number of Iraqi civilians, in addition to the high-profile case of Baha Mousa, the hotel receptionist tortured to death by troops in September 2003. One man is alleged to have been kicked to death aboard an RAF helicopter, while two others died after being held for questioning.
Last month the Guardian disclosed that for several years after the death of Mousa, the British military continued training interrogators in techniques that include threats, sensory deprivation and enforced nakedness, in an apparent breach of the Geneva conventions. Trainee interrogators were told they should aim to provoke humiliation, disorientation, exhaustion, anxiety and fear in the prisoners they are questioning.
Lawyers representing the former JFIT inmates now argue there needs to be a public inquiry to establish the extent of the mistreatment, and to discover at which point ultimate responsibility lies, along the chain of military command and political oversight.
Yesterday’s hearing marked the start of a judicial review intended to force the establishment of an inquiry. Fordham said: “It needs to get at the truth of what happened in all these cases. It needs to deal with the systemic issues that arise out of them, and it needs to deal with the lessons to be learned.”
The Ministry of Defence is resisting such an inquiry, however. In a statement to the Commons on Monday, Nick Harvey, the Liberal Democrat armed forces minister, said the MoD should be allowed to investigate the matter itself, adding: “A costly public inquiry would be unable to investigate individual criminal behaviour or impose punishments. Any such inquiry would arguably therefore not be in the best interests of the individual complainants who have raised these allegations.”
Harvey said an inquiry would not be ruled out, “should serious and systemic issues” emerge as a result of the MoD’s own investigations.
Yesterday a senior MoD official said the department was committed to investigating the allegations as quickly as possible, and that a public inquiry was unnecessary and inappropriate. Brigadier John Donnelly of the MoD’s Judicial Engagement Policy department said: “We have set up the dedicated Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT) to investigate them as quickly and thoroughly as possible.”
He said the MoD’s IHAT team was headed by “an independent former CID officer”, and offered the most effective means of establishing the truth.
Fordham told the court that an investigation by the MoD would not satisfy the UK’s obligations under the European convention on human rights, and that it would amount to “the military investigating the military”.
Among the most startling evidence submitted to the high court in London yesterday were two videos showing the interrogation of a suspected insurgent who was taken prisoner in Basra in April 2007 and questioned about a mortar attack on a British base.
The recordings – among 1,253 made by the interrogators themselves – show this man being forced to stand to attention while two soldiers scream abuse at him and threaten him with execution. They appear to ignore his complaints that he is not being allowed to sleep and that he has had nothing to eat or drink for two days.
At the end of each session he is forced to don a pair of blackened goggles, ear muffs are placed over his head, and he is ordered to place the palms of his hands together so that a guard can grasp his thumbs to lead him away.
At the end of one session, one of the interrogators can be heard ordering the guard to “rough the fucker off”, or possibly “knock the fucker off”. The guard then runs down a corridor, dragging the prisoner behind him by his thumbs. This man’s lawyers say he was then severely beaten: they allege that the initial blows, and their client’s moans, can be heard faintly at the end of the video.
Before the start of the hearing, which is expected to last three days, Phil Shiner, the lawyer representing the former inmates, said: “It is nonsense to suggest, as the MoD does, it is a case of just a few bad apples. That is absolutely not the case. There are very serious allegations related to very troubling systemic abuse.
“People at the highest level knew what was going on, it goes up to the very highest level and is not something that just happened after we went into Iraq.
“They are not just allegations. I have no doubt a public inquiry can get to the bottom of this.”
In separate proceedings, around 250 Iraqis are bringing damages claims against the MoD, alleging assaults, serious sexual assaults and, in one case, homicide.
An investigation by the army in January 2008, which examined six cases of alleged abuse by British troops, described them as cause for “professional humility”, but concluded that such incidents were not “endemic”. However, the report did not address the possibility that some mistreatment was systematic, with those responsible acting under orders and in accordance with a prewar training regime that called for repeated use of abusive techniques.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission also joined yesterday’s proceedings, saying it was “particularly disturbed” by some of the allegations.
If the interrogation techniques on view in the video footage have been used routinely on detainees in Iraq, I would expect many of the survivors to suffer significant psychological harm. I know from years of working with people who have been subjected to this sort of treatment, especially over a sustained period, that it can lead to serious psychological disorders as a direct consequence.
The resulting health problems can continue for many years and cause extensive disruption to the personal and family life of the victim.
As we have witnessed at the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, and as specialist studies by organisations such as the Physicians for Human Rights have shown, recipients of prolonged aggressive, terrifying and threatening interrogations are at risk of developing conditions such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and other anxiety disorders.
The United Nations manual on the effective investigation and documentation of torture, known as the Istanbul Protocol, is widely accepted and used in British courts.
This document lists commonly used methods of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, including humiliation such as verbal abuse, deprivation of normal sensory stimuli such as light and sound, threats of death, poor conditions of detention including lack of food or water, accentuating feelings of helplessness and exposure to ambiguous situations or contradictory messages. All of these methods are either seen or referred to in this video.
The disclosure of this information represents another important step towards getting to the truth of the activities of UK agents in Iraq. All allegations of torture and other ill-treatment should be fully investigated and anyone found to be responsible brought to justice.
Dr Brian Fine, Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture