Army knew of Abu Ghraib months before PM was told

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The Independent Online

A senior British officer knew about serious abuse allegations at Abu Ghraib prison five months before ministers learnt about the scandal, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.

A senior British officer knew about serious abuse allegations at Abu Ghraib prison five months before ministers learnt about the scandal, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.

The officer - one of the most senior British military lawyers in Iraq - played a key role in investigating a Red Cross report which revealed that prisoners were stripped naked and locked in pitch-black cells for days, paraded in the nude, verbally abused and deprived of sleep.

But the Red Cross allegations were not passed on by British commanders in Iraq to ministers, who claim they knew nothing about the scandal surrounding Abu Ghraib until the notorious abuse photographs came to light in April last year. After the scandal broke, British diplomats were told to report cases of torture by "allies", according to Craig Murray, the former British ambassador in Uzbekistan, in an interview with The Independent on Sunday this week.

The Red Cross allegations emerged during two official inspections of the jail in October 2003 and were the first significant warnings about the systematic ill-treatment of Iraqi prisoners at the jail.

Within weeks, the now infamous pictures of naked detainees being forced to simulate sex acts, subjected to fake electrocution and being led on dog leads were taken by US military guards at the jail.

The Red Cross discovered:

* sleep deprivation caused by loud music or constant lights in window-less cells;

* detainees were paraded through the jail naked with women's underwear on their heads as a punishment;

* inmates were handcuffed naked to doors and beds;

* inmates suffered suicidal tendencies, memory loss, incoherent speech, acute anxiety, and abnormal behaviour.

There is no allegation that the official behaved improperly, but the disclosure has raised questions about how that information was handled by the British lawyer - who the MoD has refused to name - and by his superiors in Iraq. The lawyer worked as a deputy to Staff Judge Advocate Col Mark Warren, the coalition's senior legal expert, in Baghdad. He was asked by ColWarren to help investigate the Red Cross allegations and prepare a formal response for the jail's commander, Brigadier General Janis Karpinski.

The British officer then ordered his junior, an Australian lawyer, Major George O'Kane, to visit Abu Ghraib and question senior US officers. Major O'Kane filed more than 20 reports to his superiors, including detailed accounts of his Abu Ghraib investigations. The MoD has refused to disclose what action the British lawyer took, however. It insists he was part of a US chain of command.

A spokesman said: "The reaction of [Col Warren] and his personnel to the International Committee of the Red Cross reports was to retrain US personnel at Abu Ghraib and to prepare a draft letter by way of response for the signature of Brigadier General Karpinski.

"As far as the ICRC reports were concerned, the [British] officer considered that the US authorities were responding appropriately to the criticisms made in those reports."

But Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, is also facing Commons demands from Adam Price, the Plaid Cymru MP,to explain the British lawyer's role in the development of the US military's interrogation rules at Abu Ghraib, rules in force during the Red Cross visit.

Adam Ingram, the Defence minister, has admitted that the MoD misled the Commons on 1 September last year when ministers denied the British officer had any part in drafting a crucial interrogation policy paper in September 2003.

US military and Congressional inquirieshave found that the "counter-resistance and interrogation policy" rules were a "contributing factor" in the worst abuses.

In a letter to the MP, Mr Ingram said: "We have established that a UK officer ... contributed to comments provided by his [US] superior on thedocument while it was in draft." Of the Abu Ghraib pictures, Mr Ingram said: "Nothing in that document authorised the kind of abuse that have subsequently come to light."

Mr Price said: "Much of the Iraqi insurgency deepened after the Abu Ghraib photos emerged - a scandal foreseen by the Red Cross's findings."