How Britain was forced to face up to its own Abu Ghraib

The British Army, and its hard won reputation, are on trial for its treatment of Iraqi prisoners. By Severin Carrell and Raymond Whitaker
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For all indications to the contrary - not least Robert Fisk's report in The Independent on Sunday, more than a year ago, that an Iraqi hotel receptionist had died in British military custody - it remained the assumption that British troops were better-equipped to cope with Iraq than their American counterparts.

For all indications to the contrary - not least Robert Fisk's report in The Independent on Sunday, more than a year ago, that an Iraqi hotel receptionist had died in British military custody - it remained the assumption that British troops were better-equipped to cope with Iraq than their American counterparts.

The US military machine might have smashed through to Baghdad in record time, it was argued, but with their experience of police operations in Northern Ireland and of peacekeeping around the world, British forces would come into their own when the fighting stopped. This impression survived a persistent stream of allegations of mistreatment of Iraqi civilians by British soldiers, complaints from human rights organisations and MPs, and scathing criticism from the High Court in London of the way the military investigated itself.

The Americans, meanwhile, were shamed by the shocking photographs of prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad, for which one soldier has just been sentenced to 10 years. Congressional and journalistic investigations in the US have made a convincing case that Abu Ghraib was the product of an "anything goes" mentality that came from the top down, and which ran from Guantanamo Bay through Afghanistan to Iraq. No evidence of a similar attitude has been discovered here.

But Britain now has its own Abu Ghraib. Last week, during the court martial of three members of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers on charges of mistreating Iraqi detainees, photographs remarkably similar to those that stunned America were published - and they were taken several months earlier. Does the behaviour of US troops look worse simply because American society is more open, as some claim? It is beginning to look that way, especially when it emerged last week that five Danish soldiers, including an intelligence officer, have also been charged with abuse.

From what has emerged at the court martial in Germany, and other investigations, it is becoming clear that British troops had as much difficulty as supposedly more gung-ho American soldiers in making the transition from four weeks of war in March and April 2003 to the aftermath. Within days of the invasion, the first authoritative allegations of ill-treatment and abuse were raised in private by senior officials of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to senior British and US military officers.

In south-east Iraq, it was the "brutal treatment" by the British of Iraqi detainees which was the focus of Red Cross complaints, including claims that British military intelligence had "systematically" and illegally used hoods and flexi-cuffs during the interrogation of prisoners.

Yet the scale of the alleged abuse uncovered by the ICRC came to light only last May, when The Wall Street Journal published a previously confidential ICRC report sent to both the US and British governments in February 2004. The ICRC said there was a widespread and systematic culture of abuse and ill-treatment of prisoners in those early weeks, including "petty violence, such as having orders screamed at them and being cursed, kicked, struck with rifle butts, roughed up or pushed around".

The Red Cross said its intervention on 1 April 2003 stopped the systematic use of hoods and flexi-cuffs, but according to the Ministry of Defence's own admissions of what followed, and the revelations at last week's court martial, its warnings seemed to have little impact on the way Iraqi prisoners were allegedly treated.

Over ensuing weeks, five Iraqi detainees died in British custody and scores of others were allegedly assaulted and ill-treated - including the incident under examination at the court martial, the arrest of looters at Camp Bread Basket, a vast supply depot on the outskirts of Basra. It was against this background that the British military's most senior legal adviser in Iraq, Lt Col Nicholas Mercer, issued an urgent order to all British troops, reminding them of their legal and professional obligations to respect the "humanity and dignity" of Iraqi detainees.

In what may have been a reference to the Red Cross's warnings, Lt Col Mercer told the court martial last week that in previous weeks "a number of allegations were made. These people weren't being treated as they should be. We'd heard there were problems, not just at the Bread Basket camp."

The MoD admits that by the time of Lt Col Mercer's order, there were 11 suspicious deaths of Iraqis which were investigated by the Royal Military Police. Three are now the subject of courts martial or prosecution by the civilian Crown Prosecution Service.

But lawyers and civil rights groups are deeply troubled by two other cases in which the military police insist death was due to natural causes, including that of Abd al-Jubba Mousa Ali, a primary school headteacher whose son Bashar told the IoS he had seen British troops repeatedly beating his father on the head with rifle butts and later heard his father being assaulted in a cell at an army headquarters. This is one of about 40 cases taken up by the Birmingham-based campaigning lawyer Phil Shiner.

Nor did the problems cease after May 2003, as shown by the fact that the Army had to revise its rules of engagement three times after the war, issuing fresh instructions banning the use of hoods and eventually heavily restricting the right of senior army officers to veto investigations into their own troops' conduct. The most damaging case of all - the arrest and death of Baha Mousa, the hotel receptionist seized along with seven fellow hotel workers in a dawn raid by the Queen's Lancashire Regiment - took place in September 2003.

By June last year, the MoD admitted that the military police had investigated the suspicious deaths of 37 Iraqis, including at least 11 unnamed men accused of being insurgents. By August, that number had jumped to 48 suspicious deaths. Among those cases, say Mr Shiner and human rights campaigners at Amnesty International, a disturbing pattern emerged of British troops using disproportionate force during raids, of firing into crowds without sufficient care or of opening fire without justification.

For its part, the Government insists its troops are extremely professional, and is adamant it vigorously investigates and prosecutes all allegations of abuse or unlawful killing. Yet last week, the MoD admitted that military and civilian prosecutors are now either proceeding with or preparing 16 cases that involve allegedly illegal killings, illegal use of force and improper discharge of a firearm. A total of 36 individual armed forces personnel are now facing the courts, including up to 20 for allegedly killing Iraqis.

The Government says these numbers are low, given that more than 65,000 armed forces personnel have now served in Iraq and that so many cases have been investigated. This is disputed by MPs and lawyers, however. Mr Shiner pointed to a highly critical High Court judgment in December last year, which said MoD investigations were "not effective, for they essentially consisted only in a comparatively superficial exercise, based on the evidence of the soldiers themselves, and even then on a paucity of interviews or witness statements, an exercise which was one-sided and omitted the assistance of forensic evidence".

The judges added: "The investigations [do] not pass muster. They were not independent, they were one-sided; and the commanders concerned were not trying to do their best according to the requirements of human rights law."

Adam Price, the Plaid Cymru MP who has led demands for an independent inquiry into the abuse allegations, said: "I find it difficult to believe that that number of incidents would have occurred without there being some belief there was a culture of acceptance of this kind of behaviour. That is really the key question.

"There are certain things which strike you about many of the abuse allegations against US and British soldiers. There are common factors, such as the use of public nakedness, homosexual abuse and torture. If you put this together, you almost see something akin to an informal methodology of abusing prisoners.

"The common factors are striking and there's a legitimate question whether there was a common source for some of those methods of abuse. It's possible that cultural sensitivity training included references to attitudes towards public nakedness and homosexual acts in the Islamic world. That's potentially the root. It's difficult to imagine that these common practices were somehow just the result of spontaneous imagination."