The whole rotten barrel
The court martial of three British soldiers accused of human rights violations in Iraq is only the tip of the iceberg, writes Faiza Rady
"On the nights of 13 and 14 September 2003, British troops arrested and detained Bahaa Moussa and eight of his colleagues from a hotel in Basra. Over the next three days the soldiers took turns to humiliate him, beat him and torture him to death." -- Phil Shiner, British lawyer
In an eerie replay of Abu Ghraib three British soldiers are facing a court martial in Osnabrèck, Germany, following the publication of pictures documenting their abuse of Iraqi prisoners. The proceedings are expected to last between three and four weeks. In Osnabrèck Lance Corporal Darren Larkin, Corporal Daniel Kenyon and Lance Corporal Mark Cooley are charged with nine counts of abuse of prisoners in May 2003 at Camp Bread Basket -- an aid camp near the UK-controlled southern city of Basra.
After the end of war in April 2003, the British army established the camp as a food distribution centre. But it soon became clear that Camp Bread Basket was by no means equipped to even come close to providing for the tens of thousands of starved and poverty-stricken Basra area residents. As a result the camp was plagued with petty theft and rampant looting.
Faced with a vexing problem, camp commander Major Dan Taylor concocted an ingenious solution. A learned man with literary pretensions, he devised Operation Ali Baba -- a reference to the story of Ali Baba and the 40 thieves, where the fright factor is essential -- Taylor instructed his subordinates to catch looters and frighten them by "working them hard". Thus petty officers and soldiers complied and abused Iraqis as ordered.
In Osnabrèck Cooley, Kenyon and Larkin are currently on the dock for following orders, while Major Dan Taylor remains at large. In addition to the common assault and battery charges, the counts include more sophisticated offences like "placing an Iraqi whose hands were tied on the forks of a forklift truck, raising the forks and driving the truck."
Other equally horrific charges are comparable to the Abu Ghraib sexual humiliation and abuse of prisoners by US soldiers. Corporal Kenyon, for example, is charged with "aiding and abetting an unknown person or persons to force two Iraqi detainees to simulate a sexual act". Kenyon is also charged with "failing to report that soldiers under his command had forced two naked Iraqi detainees to simulate an act of oral sex."
At the court martial hearing, Defence Counsel Joseph Giret used the Nazi Nuremberg Defence argument, based on the chain of command -- while omitting any reference to individual responsibility. "The whole reason Corporal Kenyon is on the dock stems from those who gave the orders to operate the plan Ali Baba," said Giret.
In the House of Commons, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said he was "disgusted at the shocking and appalling" photos of the abuse, which hit the front page of the British dailies last week.
Apparently taking his cue from United States President George W Bush, who dismissed Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and torture charges at other American detention centres as the work of a few "rotten apples", Blair emphatically denied that the British army had established any torture policy. "The vast majority of those 65,000 British soldiers who have served in Iraq have done so with distinction, with courage and with great honour to this country... We should recognise that [those three soldiers] in no way reflect the true character of Britain's armed forces," said Blair.
It is ironic that the Bush (and Blair) lines nearly echo earlier much-maligned versions of the same, wrote analyst Scott Horton in The Los Angeles Times.
Take SS Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Hess's whitewash of Auschwitz. "This so-called ill-treatment and torture in detention centres, stories which were spread everywhere... were not, as some assumed, inflicted methodically, but were excesses committed by individual prison guards," said Hess in defence of Auschwitz. "Most people who hear this quote today assume it was uttered by a senior officer of the Bush administration," commented Horton.
Although rights organisations and some critics do not blast the British prime minister as a war criminal, they accuse him of having paved the way to human rights violations by trashing relevant parts of human rights treaties.
Following the US president's lead of declaring the Geneva Conventions "obsolete" in the "war on terror", Blair successfully lobbied parliament in 2001 to pass the Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act (ATCSA), which provided for the indefinite detention of foreign terrorist suspects, said Human Rights Watch (HRW) in its 2005 report.
In order to establish such a detention regime, the UK had to suspend some of its human rights obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the International Convenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) by formally declaring "a public emergency threatening the life of the nation". The UK, said HRW, is the only Council of Europe and UN member state to declare such a state of emergency and to decide that the threat of terrorism forced it to scrap one of its essential human rights obligations -- the prohibition against indefinite detention without charge or trial.
The partial suspension of the ECHR and the ICCPR allowed the British government to set up its own version of Guantanamo Bay, albeit on a smaller scale. While the Bush administration incarcerated an estimated 700 detainees over the last three years, the British government only detained a total of 17 men in maximum security prisons at Belmarsh and Woodhill -- without charges or trial.
Yet there is light at the end of the tunnel for the detainees. Britain's highest court, the Law Lords decided last month that the indefinite detention of foreign terrorism suspects is incompatible with the Human Rights Act and the ECHR, ruling that the detainees have to be charged and tried, or released. "The Law Lords have reminded us of a self-evident truth -- that no threat, however real, can justify abandoning basic principles of liberty and justice," said HRW.
After the Osnabrèck court martial at least 20 British soldiers will be prosecuted for the abuse of Iraqi civilians. However, British human rights lawyer Phil Shiner says this is only the tip of the iceberg. An estimated 48 Iraqis were either summarily executed or tortured to death, while in British custody.
Shiner, who is representing 40 Iraqis in human rights violation suits believes that there is a system to the madness. "It is clear that these incidents cannot be explained by nailing a few "rogue soldiers" in the ranks, said Shiner. "The evidence suggests officers were involved and that a torture policy exists."