The reputation of the British Army has been seriously compromised

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The three soldiers from the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers who were convicted this week for abusing prisoners at an army camp in Iraq, have disgraced themselves and the entire British Army. The manner in which Iraqi detainees at Camp Bread Basket in Basra were treated in May 2003 violated every international safeguard relating to the care of civilians during war. It was brutal, humiliating and - in some cases - constituted torture.

When the scandal of the American abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib emerged last year, many in the UK assumed British troops would never indulge in that kind of behaviour. Our Army has long enjoyed a reputation for tight discipline and cultural sensitivity. But that reputation has been severely compromised. We have our own Abu Ghraib.

One effect of this case is that life has been made more dangerous for British troops still serving in Iraq. The grotesque "trophy" photographs that constituted the crucial evidence in this court martial were beamed all around the Arab world when the trial began, just like the images from Abu Ghraib. Since then, attacks by insurgents on British forces have increased in intensity. Gone are the days when British troops could patrol the south of Iraq in berets, rather than helmets.

This case has also further undermined any remaining moral justification for the invasion of Iraq. Were we not supposed to be liberating the Iraqi people from a cruel tyranny? A quote from one of the victims of this abuse is particularly damning in this respect: "We were not treated in this way under Saddam."

Senior officers and politicians have been at pains to argue that it is only "a few bad apples" who were responsible for the abuse - the same defence which was used by the US government during the Abu Ghraib scandal. While we hope this is true, this argument would be a good deal more convincing if army investigators had been more zealous in investigating allegations of abuse. The damning pictures from Camp Bread Basket only came to light by chance, after a soldier took them to be developed upon returning to the UK. Rumours of mistreatment were apparently ignored before this startling evidence emerged.

Then there is the court martial itself to consider. Astonishingly, there was no testimony from the actual victims of the abuse depicted in the photographs. The Ministry of Defence claims that efforts were made to locate these men, but that they failed. Yet The Independent managed to locate them in just two days. And there does not appear to have been a concerted effort to discover to what extent senior officers had given the impression to soldiers that such treatment was desirable. All of this suggests that the Army, rather than striving to root out abuse, is actually engaged in a damage limitation exercise.

Any hint of abuse or torture being swept under the carpet would only further undermine the legitimacy of the occupation in Iraq and have the effect of inviting further attacks on our troops. The army must find out the full extent of this scandal. Justice must be seen to be done.