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27 August 2009 Edition

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Torture, ill-treatment, inhuman and degrading treatment - Britain's role, past and present


BRITISH MINISTERS have again been forced to deny continuing allegations of collusion in the torture of detainees in the ‘War on Terror’ after their own parliamentary committee on human rights admitted it could not establish the truth because information was being deliberately withheld by their own government.
In a joint article in the Sunday Telegraph on 8 August, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband and Home Secretary Alan Johnson stated that there was “no truth” in the suggestion that it was official policy to “collude in, solicit or directly participate in abuses of prisoners”.
The British Government has been “firmly opposed to torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment”, said the Cabinet members. “It is about our values as a nation, and about what we do, not just what we say,” they said.
Evidence continues to accumulate that Britain has been ‘out-sourcing’ the torture of detainees to countries less encumbered by international obligations, legal restraints and public scrutiny.
The London-based pressure group, Reprieve, has cited three more instances to add to a growing body of evidence exposing Britain’s current involvement in the use of torture and ill-treatment.
A British resident of Ethiopian extraction, Binyam Mohammed, was ‘rendered’ by the US to be tortured in Morocco. The British High Court recently ruled there was evidence that MI5 officers colluded in his torture and that British officials were fielding questions to his interrogators two years into his detention. Mohammed was subsequently released without charge after being held for over six years.
Mohammed Madni was put in a coffin when he was abducted from Jakarta in Indonesia 2002 and flown to an island controlled by the British in the Indian Ocean. From an American air base on the island of Diego Garcia, Madni was taken to Egypt, where he was forced to stand for 92 days and repeatedly electrocuted with a cattle prod.
The third case involves Britain’s role in the illegal ‘rendition’ of prisoners in British custody in Iraq to the notorious Bagram air base in Afghanistan.
Allegations of ill-treatment and torture continue to emerge about Bagram, whose captives are held in a legal no man’s land, with no right of access to lawyers or to challenge their detention.
As ministers, David Miliband and Alan Johnson have responsibility for MI5 and MI6 respectively, the two primary British intelligence agencies tasked with obtaining information through surveillance, the deployment of spies and informers and the interrogation of suspects.
Yet, despite their ministerial responsibilities, Miliband and Johnson have repeatedly refused to give evidence on the issue of Britain’s involvement in the torture of detainees, even failing to appear to answer questions before Westminster’s own parliamentary Joint Committee for Human Rights.
The use of brutality, including the torture of prisoners, by the West has been and continues to be inextricably linked to colonial conquest and occupation. The other unacknowledged fact is that patterns of torture and brutality against ‘suspects’, detainees and prisoners reflect specific policy objectives.
The use of torture follows strategic decisions, the introduction of specific legislation, the allocation of resources and the construction of purpose-built installations. Such preparations all give immediate lie to the political denials and judicial cover ups that generally follow in its wake. Mistreatment and brutality don’t just happen: they are planned and equipped.

In the late 1960s, the last bastion of British colonialism in Ireland, the artificially-created sectarian state of the North, collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions. Rather than reform, the British state decided to impose its authority by deploying British troops.
During the 30 years of conflict that followed, the ill-treatment and torture of captives, whether internees, detainees or prisoners not only became integral to British occupation but also shifted and changed to meet specific strategic objectives set by the British Government. It also shifted and changed as a response to public exposure and international condemnation.
Torture and ill-treatment in its many forms is most closely associated with interrogation, either as a means of obtaining information or as a mechanism to secure a conviction. In the early 1970s, faced with a popular insurrection amongst the Northern nationalist population of Ireland, the British military found what little information they had was hopelessly out of date and mostly irrelevant.
The introduction of internment without trial in the Six Counties in 1971 provided the British Army with the opportunity to experiment with newly-developed interrogation techniques. In fact, they weren’t that new, just a formalised version of the kind of brutality visited upon other colonised peoples by the British in Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus and Aden. The level of unbridled brutality was such that no record could be kept and instructions were delivered orally.
The business of torture, now dressed up as interrogation techniques, was organised by a covert establishment known as the English Intelligence Centre, located in Sussex before moving to Ashford in Kent. The centre not only handled all intelligence gained through interrogation, it also disseminated the methods.

Five techniques were taught which included hooding, ‘white noise’, physical stress (usually standing spread-eagled against a wall), sleep and food deprivation. In April 1971, special instructors were sent from Britain to the North of Ireland to train RUC Special Branch in these techniques and to set up interrogation centres within selected British Army barracks.
So, in the early hours of 9 August 1971 when British troops poured into nationalist areas to drag 342 people from their beds and into waiting trucks, before being taken to internment camps, the detainees were filtered through interrogation centres. Internment was not simply an exercise in mass detention; it was a mechanism for mass interrogation.
Fourteen internees were selected as ‘guinea pigs’ and subjected to the specific techniques of sensory deprivation. Sensory deprivation as an interrogation method smacks of scientific application rather than medieval excess but in fact brutality is hardwired into the system. Not only does the compliance of the victim rely entirely upon repeated beatings and terror but the success of the technique rests upon inducing physical and psychological collapse.
Public outrage at the treatment of the 14 men induced the then Irish Government to bring the matter before the European Commission and Court of Human Rights. The case dragged on for five years, giving the British Government time to instigate its own domestic whitewash with the establishment of the Compton Report.
The probe was limited to arrests made on the first day, 9 August 1971. During the course of the inquiry, no evidence was given under oath and there was no cross-examination, Compton only spoke with one complainant and he deployed a remarkable definition of torture.
Torture, according to Compton, could be regarded as having occurred only if the perpetrator was indifferent or took pleasure in the pain of his victim. As one of Compton’s critics pointed out all five of a man’s fingers could be removed as long as the remover felt nothing but regret. Under such circumstances it was hardly surprising when Compton exonerated all concerned.
But perhaps the greatest cover-up facilitated by the Compton report was its disregard for the other 3,000 suspects interrogated in Palace Barracks and Gough Barracks, forerunners to Castlereagh, in the year that followed the introduction of internment.

Brutality during interrogation did provide the British military with some information but remarkably little given the scale of the operation. By the mid-1970s, the mass internment of Irish people by a foreign force of occupation could not be sustained and the British Government needed to change gear to avoid growing international attention.
Internment smacked of political, even colonial, oppression. What the British Government needed was criminal convictions. Now interrogators were looking less for information and more for confessions to facilitate the government’s criminalisation policy.
But the law on the admissibility of confession evidence as it stood acted as a safeguard, albeit limited, against the application of brutality during interrogation. To facilitate the kind of mass detention the British regarded as necessary, the lack of any real evidence to sustain real convictions posed a problem unless the law was changed to enable confession evidence, regardless of how it was generated, sufficient to secure conviction. The Diplock Report was to provide the solutions.
“The detailed technical rules and practice as to the admissibility of inculpatory statements by the accused as they are currently applied are hampering the course of justice in the case of terrorist crimes and compelling the authorities responsible for public order and safety to resort to detention,” concluded Diplock.
What the British Government needed, Diplock delivered: no-jury courts and a presumption of guilt on the basis of confession-only evidence, regardless of how it was obtained or it being contested.
The British Government endorsed Diplock’s recommendations, incorporating them into the Emergency Provisions Act (EPA).
They also extended the length of time ‘suspects’ could be held under interrogation. It was a green light for brutality.
The EPA became law in 1973 and within two years the last internee was released. Two years later, interrogation centres at Castlereagh and Gough were at peak efficiency, processing thousands of people through a conveyor belt of detention, interrogation, no-jury trials and conviction.
Meanwhile, in Strasbourg, the British Government was explaining away brutality during interrogation as the ‘inevitable’ consequence of ‘anger and stress’.
“It is, unfortunately, probably inevitable that, on occasions, a member, or members of the security forces, acting under the influence of anger and stress, will ill-treat a suspected terrorist,” ran the submission of the British Government to the European Court of Human Rights.
But despite the British Government’s best efforts, evidence of endemic, even systematic, brutality during interrogation began to seep out. Doctors who examined prisoners after interrogation noted a significant change in the condition of the people examined.
It is impossible to know the impact of the Strasbourg court case but it must have crossed their minds that if the British Government was found guilty of torture, doctors working within the system would also be held to have been complicit. Allegations of mistreatment were routinely dismissed as republican propaganda but now, tentatively, doctors began noting their misgivings about the treatment of ‘suspects’.
In a memorandum to their medical association, the doctors reported a large increase in prisoners with significant bruising, contusions and abrasions and ruptured eardrums. There were also injuries consistent with hair pulling and persistent jabbing. The doctors noted evidence of increased mental agitation and excessive anxiety states. It was to be the first in a series of steps taken by local doctors to raise the issue with the authorities.

In September 1976, the European Commission published its report and found the British Government guilty of “torture, inhuman and degrading treatment”.
The British Government appealed and, after intense lobbying around the definition of torture, the European Commission backed down and removed torture from its findings. The British media portrayed the outworking of what was essentially a pedantic squabble as exoneration. The British were no longer guilty of torture and inhuman and degrading treatment could be conveniently ignored.
In 1977, Amnesty International travelled to the North of Ireland to make its own assessment. The visit proved one significant thing: brutality during interrogation could be turned on and off like a tap. Also in 1977, doctors were able to confirm that there had hardly been a case to cause them concern. Presumably, levels of ‘stress and anger’ experienced by interrogators remained the same but it was no longer resulting in assaults on prisoners. Something had changed, at least until Amnesty delivered its report, which it did in June 1978.
Amnesty concluded that “maltreatment of suspected terrorists by the RUC has taken place with sufficient frequency to warrant the establishment of a public inquiry to investigate it”.
But the last thing the British Government wanted was further public scrutiny. The British knew the weight of evidence, if exposed in a public forum, would result in uproar. And having negotiated their way through Strasbourg by the skin of their teeth, the British Government couldn’t afford to reignite international attention.

It needed another forum of ‘investigation’ to placate the call for a public inquiry. The British Government announced a private inquiry to be conducted by British Judge Harry Bennett. The Bennett Inquiry, like the Compton Inquiry before it, had no power to summons witnesses or take evidence under oath. But, unlike Compton, most of the information was already within the public arena. Their best hope was damage limitation.
There was no point denying that brutality had taken place, so Bennett restricted his consideration to the point at which brutality occurred. Bennett focused exclusively on the RUC. Not surprisingly, Bennett concluded any ill-treatment could be explained away with reference to the junior rank and lack of training of some RUC interrogators.
But if the British Government thought they were off the hook completely, they were to be sadly disappointed. The Bennett Report sent shockwaves across the Atlantic, causing the US Congress to embargo the sale of weapons to the RUC. Reeling from the shock of being equated with all the other repressive regimes US President Jimmy Carter’s administration was refusing to do business with, the British Government announced it fully accepted Bennett’s recommendations.
But that’s not the end of the story of the Bennett Report. Ironically, it had sought to protect the then British Government but, within weeks of its publication, the Bennett Report played a key role in removing the Labour Party from office. A vote of no confidence in the House of Commons hung in the balance; to stay in power, the British Labour Party required just two more votes.
Enraged by the Bennett Report, Frank Maguire, whose constituency of Fermanagh/South Tyrone would one day elect Bobby Sands as their MP, refused to support the Labour Government and abstained. Gerry Fitt, SDLP MP for West Belfast, had little choice but to do the same. The Government fell by 311 votes to 310. In the general election that followed, Margaret Thatcher was elected as prime minister.
And soon the whole range of brutality, from torture to ill-treatment to humiliation, shifted into another gear. The British Government’s criminalisation policy not only required convictions, it also required political prisoners to accept their newly-defined status as criminals, wear prison uniforms and accept prison work. Republican prisoners in the H-Blocks and Armagh refused to comply.
The success of the British Government’s criminalisation strategy now rested on their ability to break protesting republican prisoners and they were prepared to go to extraordinary levels of brutality to impose their will. The systematic violence inflicted upon protesting prisoners in the Blocks and Armagh has yet to be the subject of any inquiry.

An Phoblacht Magazine


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