Britain Teaches the World to Torture
This article appeared on Page 10 of Ceylon Today on Wednesday January 28 2015
There was a time when the British army adopted a somewhat superior attitude to the US army’s conduct after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Much was made of Britain’s experience in conducting a war against insurgents in urban conditions in Northern Ireland. To boast about that suggests either supreme arrogance or selective memory. British tactics were not successful in Northern Ireland or Basra and certainly did not have the “moral authority” to which David Cameron referred in his statement about the US Senate report on torture.
Britain’s torture laboratory in Northern Ireland
In 1971, Operation Demetrius involved the mass arrest and imprisonment without trial of people suspected of connections with the Provisional IRA. Fourteen of those imprisoned were interrogated at a site formerly known as RAF Ballykelly, which was handed over to the British Army as Shackleton Barracks on 2 June 1971. On their way to the interrogation centre in 1971, the British army hooded the men and threw them to the ground from helicopters. The captors told the hooded men they were hundreds of feet in the air, but the helicopters were actually just a few feet from the ground. Granted, this was better behaviour than that of the Argentinian junta who threw prisoners to their death from helicopters at high altitude.
The British security forces during the Irish Troubles developed five techniques of “deep interrogation”: prolonged wall standing, hooding, subjection to noise, deprivation of sleep, and deprivation of food and drink. For seven days, when not being interrogated, the detainees were forced to wear hoods while handcuffed in a cold cell and were forced to stand in a stress position for many hours. There was a continuous loud hissing noise. They were repeatedly beaten, their heads banged against the wall. The interrogators kicked them in the genitals. The treatment caused long-term trauma.
In 1976, the European Commission of Human Rights ruled that the five techniques amounted to “torture”. However, in 1978, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the five techniques were “inhuman and degrading” and breached the European Convention on Human Rights, but did not amount to “torture”. The Court’s ruling, that the five techniques did not amount to torture, was later cited by the US and Israel to justify their own methods. Britain exported the techniques to the military dictators of Brazil.
In 1972, prime minister Edward Heath promised to the House of Commons: “[The] Government, having reviewed the whole matter with great care and with reference to any future operations, have decided that the techniques … will not be used in future as an aid to interrogation… The statement that I have made covers all future circumstances.”
Despite Heath’s promise, the British Army used the five techniques in Iraq. As recently as December 2014, human rights lawyers sent a dossier of claims to the ICC (International Criminal Court) alleging that British soldiers abused and tortured Iraqi men, women and children, aged from 13 to 101. Defence secretary Geoff Hoon told MPs in 2005 that hooding had not been used in Iraq since May 2004. In reality, there were more than 70 cases of hooding between June 2004 and September 2008.
There were, the report alleges, dozens of mock executions; many described how dogs were used to attack or threaten detainees. There are also allegations of sexual assault or rape by British soldiers. One man who was “repeatedly beaten” and “electrocuted”, suffered “severe psychological injuries as a result of his treatment”. He set himself alight and killed himself a year after his release.
Phil Shiner, a solicitor with the law firm PIL (Public Interest Lawyers), which is handling the claims, said: “The UK mindset in Iraq appears to be one of savage brutality and a sadistic inhumanity, irrespective of whether it was women, children or old men being tortured, abused or callously subjected to lethal force. The systemic issues must now be dealt with in public.”
A long history of torture
Britain has an extensive and unlovely record of brutality in the “war on terrorism” that goes back at least as far as the Tudors. Henry VIII tried to bring all Ireland under his control to prevent its use as a base for a Catholic invasion of England or a haven for pretenders trying to depose him. His daughter Elizabeth had similar fears and thought the Jesuits might try to overthrow her. Some versions of the story of Edmund Campion (now a Catholic saint) have it that the Queen was actually present when Campion was tortured on the rack.
Obama tortured by British
Neil Ascherson wrote: “The myth that British colonialism guaranteed a minimum standard of behavior toward ‘natives’ cannot—or should not—survive the evidence of twentieth-century Kenya. In the field, the security forces behaved like Germans on an antipartisan sweep in occupied France. In the detention and work camps, and the resettlement villages, the British created a world no better than the universe of the Soviet Gulag.”
Hussein Onyango Obama, Barack Obama’s paternal grandfather, was arrested in 1949 by the British during the Mau-Mau uprising in Kenya and subjected to horrific violence, which left him permanently scarred and embittered against the British. “The African warders were instructed by the white soldiers to whip him every morning and evening till he confessed,” Sarah Onyango, 87, Hussein Onyango’s third wife, the woman President Obama refers to as “Granny Sarah” said. “He said they would sometimes squeeze his testicles with metallic rods. They also pierced his nails and buttocks with a sharp pin, with his hands and legs tied together with his head facing down.”
Mau-Mau militants killed 32 British civilians. The British killed 20,000 Mau-Mau fighters and persecuted large numbers of Kikuyu not directly involved in the rebellion. Lawyers acting for Kenyans suing for compensation documented 5,228 cases of abuses including fatal whippings, blindings, castrations and rapes.
In 2009, Kenyan victims filed a lawsuit, but the British government asked the judge to throw out the case, saying it had transferred all liability to Kenya when the country gained independence. The Kenya government denied responsibility and stood behind the victims. The three men, including one whom the British had castrated, who filed the original case made numerous trips to London to give their testimony. Britain could not deny the atrocities because there were immaculate records kept by the torturers themselves that revealed systemic human rights violations. The High Court ordered the Foreign Office to produce all relevant evidence, including hundreds of boxes of files, secretly smuggled out of Kenya ahead of independence in 1963. The British government’s defence until recently was that the statute of limitations had expired. Eventually, after four years of dogged resistance, Britain announced a £19.9 million settlement. Many of the beneficiaries, who are in their 80s, will not have long to enjoy the compensation.
In 1971, the British evicted all 2,000 inhabitants of the Chagos Islands from their homes in order to give Diego Garcia to the US as a military base. In his book Island of Shame, David Vine quotes military analyst John Pike telling him that the US military’s goal is “to run the planet from Guam and Diego Garcia by 2015, even if the entire Eastern Hemisphere has drop-kicked us from every other base.”
Stephen Grey, author of Ghost Plane disclosed the journeys of a Gulfstream aircraft, registered N379P, as part of a list of more than 3,000 flight logs. The logs show the same aircraft flew from Washington via Athens to Diego Garcia. Though there have been persistent reports in the US that detainees have been secretly held in Diego Garcia, the British government has always dismissed the claims. The then Foreign Secretary Jack Straw denied that the Diego Garcia base was used for rendition and torture. “There simply is no truth that the United Kingdom has been involved in rendition, full stop.”
David Miliband war criminal?
When David Miliband became foreign secretary in June 2007, there were already allegations about possible British involvement in overseas torture. Sami al-Saadi claimed that, in 2004, MI6 handed him and his family over to authorities in Libya who tortured him. Documents show that MI5 gave Tripoli reports on Libyan dissidents living in Britain.
Gareth Pierce is a human rights lawyer who had defended Giuseppe Conlon against the flawed prosecution led by Sir Michael Havers. She is dishonoured by the ridiculous caricature of her by Emma Thompson in the film In the Name of the Father. She wrote in the London Review of Books about Binyam Mohamed, an Ethiopian given leave to reside in the UK. “British intelligence and the Americans and Moroccans for 18 months slashed the most intimate parts of his body with razors, burned him with boiling liquids, stretched his limbs causing unimaginable agony, and bombarded him with ferocious sound.” Techniques seem to have become more brutal since the days of St Edmund Campion. As David Miliband was personal advisor to Tony Blair while Labour was in opposition and played a major role in the election victory of 1997, it seems unlikely that he was unaware of what was happening before he became foreign secretary.
As human rights lawyer Philippe Sands, who represented Binyam Mohammed, writes, Miliband cannot avoid charges of complicity demonstrated by his actions as foreign secretary. Miliband personally approved some interrogations involving countries with poor human rights records. He was a senior member of a government that later actively resisted calls for an inquiry. “He put considerable energy into defending a number of claims relating to torture in the English courts against his department.”
While campaigning for the Labour leadership Miliband was forced to confront claims that he allowed the interrogation of three terror suspects who allege they were tortured in Bangladesh and Egypt. Faisal Mostafa, a chemistry lecturer from Manchester, who was twice cleared of terrorism offences in court, was detained in Bangladesh. He claims he was hung upside down and electrocuted while interrogators interrogated him about two Islamist groups.
Britain and the US Senate report
There is no reference at all in the Senate’s 500-page summary report to UK intelligence agencies or the British territory of Diego Garcia. There is no reference to Binyam Mohamed, or to the abductions and extraditions to Libya of Abdel Hakim Belhaj and Sami-al-Saadi. Heavy redactions to the executive summary encouraged speculation that references to US allies were deleted.
The British government commissioned an inquiry by retired judge Sir Peter Gibson to look at the UK’s treatment of detainees after 9/11. In his preliminary report, he raised 27 serious questions about the behaviour of the UK security services. The Gibson Inquiry was replaced by an investigation handled by the ISC (Intelligence and Security Committee). The ISC’s report will not, however, be completed before the 2015 general election, so it is unclear how many members of the nine-strong panel of MPs and peers will still be in parliament to complete the work. Release of the Chilcot Report into the Iraq war is also being delayed until after the election.
Gareth Pierce on the UK’s hypocrisy: “We inhabit the most secretive of democracies, which has developed the most comprehensive of structures for hiding its misdeeds, shielding them always from view behind the curtain of ‘national security’. From here on in we should be aware of the game of hide and seek in which the government hopes to ensure that we should never find out its true culpability.”