Army faces new torture claims over arrest of Shia leader

The testament of a respected Shia elder, aged 70, suggests brutal treatment of civilians is still continuing, writes Robert Verkaik

The British Army faces new allegations of torture and abuse over the arrest and detention of a Shia tribal leader and his family who claim they were hooded and beaten by soldiers based at Basra airport last year.

The allegations could prove highly damaging as they come just days after the Government said that abuses committed by British soldiers had been limited to 2003 and 2004 and involved only a "very small minority" of servicemen.

In the new claims, which are being prepared for legal action in the UK courts, Jabbir Hmoud Kammash, 70, the leader of a sub-division of the Albu-Darraj tribe in southern Iraq, alleges that a group of 20 soldiers raided his home in Al-Gzaizah, Basra, in the early hours of the morning in April last year.

Mr Kammash, a former Iraq national wrestling champion, says that on the day of the raid, his family were celebrating the birth of his grandchild: "There were over 20 soldiers. They broke into the house through the door and came down from the roof. My wife, daughters and their kids were all screaming in horror. I was very scared for their safety."

The Iraqis claim that money and computers were taken during the raid and furniture destroyed. Mr Kammash says he, his two sons and three male house guests were hooded, handcuffed and then driven off to the British military base at Basra airport.

"Two soldiers sat on my back while I was kneeling, which caused me great pain. I felt I was going to suffocate," says Mr Kammash in his statement. "I pushed my back up, which made the two soldiers hit the car's roof. The soldiers started punishing me for it by hitting my head with rifle butts – they only stopped when they noticed blood was gushing out of my head. Then they started beating me heavily in the ribs."

Mr Kammash says his head injury later required six stitches at a British military hospital.

His statement continues: "I was in severe pain and could not walk when they ordered me out of the jeep, so they started kicking and hitting me all over my body till I dropped to the floor.

"They brought a stretcher and took me to the army clinic in the airport, where I stayed for about four hours.

"I woke up to see an oxygen mask on my nose. Someone placed a pencil between my fingers and squeezed strongly, which made me scream, then asked whether I agreed to them stitching up my head – I agreed to that."

The respected Shia elder, who was still hooded, says he was dragged by two soldiers from the hospital for interrogation.

The use of hoods, if proven, would be particularly damning. Their use was outlawed by the British government in 1972, but reintroduced in Iraq without any seeming official sanction. When it emerged that prisoners were being hooded in 2004, troops were told formally that the practice should cease.

Mr Kammash's tribe has enjoyed significant influence in the south since the days of the Ottoman Empire. Abdul-Hadi Al-Darraji, one of the members of this tribe, is the official spokesman for Muqtada al-Sadr.

These new claims will increase the pressure on the Government to hold an independent inquiry into the actions of British soldiers in the detention of Iraqi civilians from the beginning of the war right up to the present day.

Despite dozens of allegations of abuse, only a handful of lower ranks have been found guilty of mistreating prisoners. No officer has been found guilty of any wrongdoing.

Mr Kammash added: "The interrogator accused me of using my house for terrorist activities and asked me to confess. I explained that I am an elderly man in a house full of women and children, and the thorough search of the house had revealed no weapons at all.

"They re-hooded me and dragged me back to the open ground, where they made me sit on rough gravel on my knees. Every time I felt sleepy or tired and my back bent forward, a soldier kicked my back with his boots or the rifle butt to keep me awake. They were absolutely merciless considering my age."

Sleep deprivation is recognised internationally as a form of torture.

During the raid Mr Kammash's son Ammar, 25, claims he was badly beaten in front of his mother because he had tried to reassure her there was nothing to worry about.

"Soldiers started beating me to stop me talking," he said. "They were very selective in choosing the areas where they beat me – I was hit on my ribs, stomach, thighs and shoulders. It seemed to me that their intention was not to cause lasting or apparent damage to my body. They used their boots, fists, rifle butts and helmets."

He claims that during his interrogation a British officer threatened that if he did not confess "they would bring my wife and sisters and rape them in front of me".

He too was treated for his injuries at the army hospital at the airport.

Mr Kammash was released the next day along with a second son, Alaa. Ammar was released four days later.

None of the men has been charged. Three other Iraqis held by the British during the same raid claim they were also inhumanely treated and were released without charge.

The men have all given witness statements to the Iraqi League, a UK-based human rights group that helped uncover evidence leading to the court martial of British troops accused in connection with the killing of Baha Mousa, a 26-year-old hotel receptionist who was beaten to death by soldiers in September 2003.

Mazin Younis, spokesperson for the Iraqi League, said: "After three visits to Basra and over 70 cases I have investigated of alleged killings or torture, especially that of Baha Mousa and his colleagues, I truly hoped that the MoD had taken serious steps to prevent hooding and abuse of Iraqi prisoners after this horrible crime. Now I am really shocked to learn that these practices may have been adopted as a policy by the British Army that has continued well into 2007."

He added: "Mr Kammash and his sons have expressed to the Iraqi League their intention to take legal action against the British government for the abuse they have suffered, and to claim damages for the injuries and losses incurred in the raid. We are now talking to British lawyers regarding this case."

Last week Des Browne, the Secretary of State for Defence, admitted that Mr Mousa had been tortured before he died, but said that some of the allegations against British soldiers were exaggerated. In letters sent to the lawyers representing Mr Mousa's family, the Government said it would resist attempts to hold a wider court inquiry into events surrounding his death.

In January the Ministry of Defence published its findings into the allegations of mistreatment of civilians detained by troops in 2003 and 2004.

Brigadier Robert Aitken, the director of army personnel strategy, said soldiers had received only "scant" information on how to treat such civilians and that forces needed to be given "a better understanding between right and wrong".

But he said there was no evidence of endemic abuse.

Martyn Day, senior partner of solicitors firm Leigh Day & Co, which specialises in human rights cases, said he had been asked to investigate the new allegations: "From what I can see, these cases have a very familiar ring to them. It shows we are not just talking about a few rogue soldiers at the beginning of the war. The scale of the abuse clearly goes much further and needs to be fully investigated at an independent public inquiry."

Mr Day said the hooding of prisoners, putting them into the stress position and depriving them of food and water were all methods widely employed by the Army.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Defence said: "We have no record of this incident or any complaints linked to it. However, the Royal Military Police will investigate any allegation of abuse reported to us. We condemn all acts of abuse and brutality and take any allegations of wrongdoing very seriously."

Jabbir Hmoud Kammash: A tribal leader draws on personal experience to give damaging evidence against the British Army

On 1 April 2007 my house was raided by British troops at around 1am. I live in Al-Gzaizah, Basra, the same district where most Camp Breadbasket victims come from. My house was occupied then by 15 members of our family, most of them women and children. One of my daughters had just had a baby on that day.

There were over 20 soldiers. They broke into the house through the door and came down from the roof. We felt like the whole Army was invading. My wife, daughters and their kids were all screaming in horror.

They searched the house and found no weapons, though they took all my savings: 2m Iraqi dinars (£812), two golden rings and a computer. None of these items were returned to us.

They hooded and handcuffed me. I was taken into an Army jeep and made to sit on my knees. Two soldiers sat on my back, which caused me great pain. I pushed my back up which made the two soldiers hit the roof. The soldiers started punishing me for it by hitting my head with rifle butts. They only stopped when they noticed blood was gushing out of my head. I later had six stitches. Then they started beating me in the ribs.

We were taken to the British base in Basra airport. I was in severe pain and could not walk when they ordered me out of the jeep, so they started kicking and hitting me till I dropped to the floor.

They brought a stretcher and took me to the Army clinic. Someone placed a pencil between my fingers and squeezed strongly which made me scream, then asked whether I agreed to them stitching-up my head.

There were non-Iraqi female doctors as well. A female doctor inspected my injuries and bruises and asked whether they were old.

I was taken away from the hospital by two soldiers who dragged me over rough ground. Then they took me for interrogation. During the interrogation the hood was lifted, and the interrogator asked me to stand up and look into his eyes. I explained that I was could not stand up. I asked him to bring me crutches so that I could stay standing.

He accused me of using my house for terrorist activities. I explained that I am an elderly man in a house full of women and children, and the search revealed no weapons.

They re-hooded me and dragged me back to the open ground, where they made me sit on gravel on my knees. Every time I felt tired and my back bent forward, a soldier kicked my back with his boots or the rifle butt to keep me awake. They were absolutely merciless considering my age.

I was taken a second time to be interrogated, where the officer apologised for my detention and confirmed that I had been detained by mistake. He gave me a $5 note. I told him that I had no need for his $5. He asked me to keep it as a souvenir from the British!

I was released the next day, along with my 25-year-old son, Alaa'. He had bruises all over his face and body. My other son, Ammar, was released four days later.

I stayed in bed for about three months after this incident. The wound in my head is still apparent, while the other bruises have since healed.

During the interrogation they made me hold a piece of paper with a number on it and they photographed me from the front and sides. I felt extremely humiliated. They were treating me like a criminal, while I was a tribe's chief who had a well-known history as Iraq's wrestling champion from 1966-68.

A diary of brutality

8 May 2003

Kareem Ali, 16, drowned after allegedly being forced to swim the Shatt al-Arab canal in Basra by British soldiers. Four troops were cleared of manslaughter.

11 May 2003

Nadhem Abdullah, 18, died after allegedly being assaulted by British soldiers in southern Iraq. Charges against seven soldiers were dismissed by a court martial in Essex.

15 May 2003

Photographs of abuse of Iraqi civilians by British soldiers were taken at Camp Breadbasket, a food distribution camp. They were released to the media two years later, leading to the conviction of four soldiers.

24 May 2003

Sa'eed Shabram drowned after also allegedly being forced to swim the Shatt al-Arab canal. No charges were brought.

15 september 2003

Baha Mousa, 26, was beaten to death and eight other Iraqi civilians were tortured by British soldiers. Only one soldier was convicted and jailed for a year. Defence Secretary Des Browne last week agreed to pay compensation, which could reach £1m.

April 2004

British soldiers were filmed beating youths during a riot at Al-Amarah. No action was taken.

May 2004

British troops allegedly executed 20 Iraqis and mutilated their corpses in the army base at Abu Naji. The MoD denies the allegations; legal action continues.

April 2007

A Shia tribal leader is beaten, hooded and deprived of sleep after being dragged off, along with two sons and three male house guests, he alleges, in a legal claim under preparation.

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