Torture—A Very British Tradition
The instructions were simple. “Get up you fucking bastard”, “Get up you fucking ape” screamed the soldiers, followed by kicks and punches. Sometimes the blows came from multiple fists and boots.
Getting up meant squatting, half leaning against a wall, arms pointing straight out. This is known as a stress position.
The British army made ten Iraqi hotel workers spend days like this. Even if they stayed in position they were beaten, had urine poured over them or were forced to drink it. They had their heads covered with hoods.
It is torture and it was systematic. It is what being “questioned” by the occupying forces in Iraq really meant.
By the end of this ordeal, hotel worker Baha Mousa was dead. One soldier later remarked, “We kicked him to death”.
British soldiers inflicted “violent and cowardly” assaults on Iraqi civilians, according to a public inquiry into the killing published last week. The Gage inquiry concluded that an “appalling episode of serious, gratuitous violence” by the British army killed Baha.
Baha died within 36 hours of being taken into British military custody. He received 93 external injuries, including a broken nose and also internal injuries including fractured ribs.
He died from asphyxia.
The case is an indictment of military culture. It shows the vicious treatment that the army doled out to civilians it interrogated.
The torture of Baha Mousa began when the army raided a hotel in Basra, Iraq, on 14 September 2003. Baha had only been working at the hotel for about two weeks. It was one of three jobs that he had in order to support his family.
The army arrested ten workers in the raid—and soldiers robbed the safe. A number of those arrested were kicked and their heads were held in flushing toilets. Much worse was to come.
Soldiers took the ten away with instructions not to use hoods—because a TV crew had turned up outside. But they beat the prisoners again before reaching the detention centre. Once there, the ordeal began in earnest. Prisoners recalled being beaten to force them to dance “like Michael Jackson”.
The inquiry heard evidence that they were scalded with boiling water, urinated on, kicked, punched and sleep deprived.
One recalled how he was given a bottle in which to urinate. When he asked for a drink on the third day, the contents of this bottle were poured into his mouth.
A soldier also grabbed his face through the sandbags and tried to force his fingers into the detainee’s eyes.
Others were given scalding water to drink and cold water was poured over their heads. One heard Baha Mousa shouting and screaming, saying, “I’ll die”, “my nose”, “I’m bleeding”.
The soldiers had a competition to see who could kick a prisoner the hardest.
The report notes that one prisoner “had petrol rubbed under his nose, water poured over his head and a lighter held close to his head, with the obvious intention of causing him to think petrol was about to be ignited.”
And so it continued. “For almost the whole of the period up to Baha Mousa’s death… the detainees were kept handcuffed, hooded and in stress positions in extreme heat and conditions of some squalor,” the report said.
The inquiry was also played a video of one soldier, Corporal Donald Payne, screaming at the prisoners and calling them “fucking apes”.
Payne became the first member of the armed forces to be convicted of a war crime when he pleaded guilty to inhumanely treating civilians at a court martial in 2006.
The soldiers put on a show where they made the prisoners into a “choir”—by beating them till they screamed. “Towards the end of the second day they were all in so much pain that he only had to poke them to get them to make a noise,” said former soldier Gareth Aspinall in the report evidence. “When visitors came across they also found it funny.”
On one occasion, soldiers held a “free for all” where a number of them attacked all the Iraqis at once. In between the beatings, prisoners were questioned. They had done nothing wrong.
The report names 19 soldiers as having assaulted prisoners—although the inquiry has not been able to identify several others. It says that Colonel Jorge Mendonca, the unit’s commander, “bears a heavy responsibility for these events”. Retired appeal court judge Sir William Gage accepted that Mendonca did not know that the abuse was going on.
But he said Mendonca failed by not knowing “precisely what conditioning involved”.
The report does not say that there was systematic torture of Iraqi prisoners. But it does point out that Baha’s death wasn’t a one-off incident.
Gage puts the blame at the door of individual soldiers and officers, as well as on poor internal communications. He condemns the “loss of discipline and a lack of moral courage” that meant soldiers did not report the abuse.
Soldiers repeatedly lied about what went on. Time and time again, soldiers claimed not to remember what they had seen or done.
That amnesia went right to the top.
Senior commanders were apparently ignorant of a ban imposed in 1972 on the use of five torture techniques, including hooding, stress positions and sleep deprivation.
While highly critical of the evidence of a number of soldiers, and of the lies told about the Iraqis’ detention, Gage ruled that there was no cover-up of Baha’s death.
After Baha’s killing, the government claimed that hooding of prisoners had stopped, which it hadn’t, and that it wasn’t used for interrogations, which it was.
The report says that while the Ministry of Defence (MoD) had provided inaccurate information, neither it, the civil service, nor ministers had intended to mislead. Instead the inquiry condemns the “corporate failure” of the MoD.
This included then armed forces minister Adam Ingram’s claim that he was “not aware of any incidents in which UK interrogators are alleged to have used hooding as an interrogation technique”.
But Ingram had been sent a memo explaining what had happened to Baha Mousa. Ingram claimed, “It certainly would not have been within my power to remember
everything that I had been informed.”
The report also notes the memory loss of then Labour defence secretary Geoff Hoon. It says, “His answers suggested that he had not perhaps fully grasped the respect in which his response turned out to have been inaccurate.”
The report provides evidence that soldiers were trained in what are essentially torture techniques. This, combined with a culture of racism and violence, explains why torture was so commonplace.
Private Stuart MacKenzie of the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment was one of those guarding Baha. Just days before the hotel raid, MacKenzie wrote in his diary, “Found 3 Ali Babas at WTP7, beat them up with sticks, filmed it. Good day so far.”
The inquiry concludes only that there should be better training for what the army calls “the harsh approach”. And it proposes the army drops teaching methods to “maintain the shock of capture” and “prolong the shock of capture”.
The government immediately rejected this, claiming that lives could be put at risk unless the army could deploy all “necessary” techniques.
The inquiry has shone a light on the brutality of the war in Iraq. But it has left the establishment untouched, the command structure and the politicians blameless. That is not justice.