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17 December 1998 Edition

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The shameful record of British torture

The torture of detainees in the Six Counties



by Laura Friel


As darkness fell on the evening of 9 August 1971, Mary Davey was fearing the worst. Earlier that day she had arrived after working nightshift at the local geriatric unit to find the isolated farmhouse which was her family home deserted. The front door was lying open and her husband John and four year old daughter Maria were missing. The RUC could tell her nothing. Mary asked specifically about the child. No child had been `lifted' the RUC assured her.

Neighbours organised a search party. They combed adjacent fields, ditches and rivers, but nothing was found.

Brutality, be it systematic torture, inhumane and degrading treatment or simply indifference to the arbitrary distress inflicted upon those their captors have already dismissed as less than fully human, has always been part of the nationalist experience of British occupation in the North.

Little Maria Davey had been sleeping when British soldiers brandishing submachine guns and rifles had burst into her bedroom. It was 5am and all over the Six counties hundreds of nationalists were being dragged from their beds. With his hands tied behind his back John Davey could only wait as his youngest child struggled to dress herself. The soldiers shouted at her to ``hurry up''. In the back of a British army jeep, Maria screamed and begged as she was forcibly separated from her father.

No one cared about the impact of being held alone, under armed guard, in an all male barracks by foreign soldiers on a small Irish child. No one thought it important to inform Mary Davey that her baby daughter had been taken, let alone where she was being held. For eighteen hours, Maria was simply ``missing''.

During Operation Demetrius 342 people were arrested in a single morning, the oldest was 78-year-old Liam Mulholland from Belfast, the youngest was Maria Davey of Maghera.

For over 30 years the British government has presided directly over the systematic ill treatment and torture of Irish people within the north of Ireland. The techniques employed and the specific political agenda for which they were employed changed over time but the horror and suffering of the ordinary people whose repression Britain demanded, remained the same.

Out of a population of 60,000 northern nationalists, hundreds of thousands of people have been raided, arrested and detained, yet only a handful of their stories has ever been told. As the Patten Commission considers the future of the RUC, An Phoblacht considers the experience of detainees in the Six counties.

In his book ``State Violence'' Fr Raymond Murray identifies 1971 as a watershed in his life. ``Political prisoners who had been ill treated and tortured in Palace barracks and Girdwood Park barracks were imprisoned in Armagh jail where I was chaplain. I saw the horrific marks on their bodies. I experienced the blatant cover-up of this illegal and immoral behaviour. Directly and indirectly, the army, police, doctors, civil administration and government were all involved in this criminal action.''

For most northern nationalists, the systematic ill treatment and torture of detainees began with internment. In a trawl for information, internees were subjected to sustained brutalisation, carried out by British soldiers, culminating in the ordeal of the ``hooded'' men: a form of interrogation in which brutal beatings were supplemented with sensory deprivation in which the victim was denied sleep, food and water, forced to stand spreadeagled against a wall, hooded and subjected to `white noise'.

By 1973, with the introduction of Diplock non-jury courts, the central arena of torture shifted from British army barracks into RUC interrogation centres. The sanction of convictions based on forced confessions became the driving force behind brutal interrogations in centres throughout the Six Counties but most notoriously, in Castlereagh.

Acquittal rates dropped from over a half to a third of cases by 1981. Over 90% of defendants appearing in Diplock courts had `confessions' against them. In almost 80% of all cases prosecution evidence relied solely on forced `confession' evidence. In almost thirty years since the introduction of Diplock courts over 10,000 northern nationalists have been subjected to the conveyor belt `justice' of brutal interrogations, forced confessions and arbitrary conviction in non jury courts.

In 1976, a secret directive by the then RUC Chief Kenneth Newman gave interrogators a virtual license to torture. Within less than a year, thousands of nationalists were being arrested and interrogated in detention centres, with over 1,700 subsequently convicted. But by 1977 information about ill treatment was already beginning to leak into the public arena.

On 2 March 1977 the BBC screened a special Tonight programme on interrogation methods in the Six counties.

Bernard O'Connor, a school teacher from Enniskillen, was one of two detainees interviewed by the programme makers. During a four day ordeal O'Connor was repeatedly beaten, humiliated and choked into unconsciousness. He described being kicked, punched and made to do press-ups; ``finally they decided that it might be even better if I took off my clothes. So I was told to take my trousers off. They then told me to take my underpants off. They then told me to take the rest of my clothes off and I did so, leaving me naked... The tracksuit top which I was wearing was taken off me and put down over my head... with the arms tied around my neck. My nose was closed off with their fingers and my mouth sealed by another hand. I couldn't breathe. I heard the older man say `Choke the bastard'.''

The programme concluded that medical evidence was consistent with O'Connor's description of ill treatment.

In January 1978 the British government was found guilty of violating Article 3 of the European Court of Human Rights on two counts. A report by Amnesty International detailed ``maltreatment of suspected terrorists by the RUC'' and called for a public inquiry. The volume of evidence became so great that two RUC doctors felt compelled to resign. In March 1979 Robert Irwin, Belfast's forensic medical officer refuted claims by RUC Chief Newman that injuries sustained by detainees were self inflicted. Irwin threatened to reveal the records of 160 detainees ill treated in RUC interrogation centres.

Two days later the British government published its own Bennett Report, a partial admission of the truth but the torture continued. By the 1980s the RUC had perfected torture which ``left no marks''.

In February 1988 Brian Gillen, one of 16 men detained during raids in Belfast, was the subject of a writ of Habeas Corpus following medical evidence of severe ill treatment.

On release, Brian was to give a graphic account of his experience. It was an experience which would be echoed time and time again by other detainees in the years that followed. A clear pattern of the new torture techniques being deployed by the RUC began to emerge. One detainee described his ordeal. ``One of them would slap me hard on the back of the head just around the base of the skull. He would keep this up for long periods. After several minutes of this treatment you get a bursting headache. They would slap you with their palms on both ears at the same time. This left you with ringing sound in your ears.''

For women detainees, brutalisation was often compounded with sexual abuse.

In June 1991 Geraldine O'Connor was arrested and taken to Castlereagh. ``One put his elbow on my thigh and the elbow went up my leg to the groin. He was rubbing his nose against my nose, putting his arm around me and settling his head on my shoulder. The other man was rubbing his hands up and down my thighs and asking me did it turn me on. In another interview the RUC man squeezed my lips and kissed me, `Do you fancy a quickie even though she is so ugly?' he said.''

By the early 1990s the RUC were specifically targeting young people. ``They were the worst five days of my life, there were times I thought they were going to kill me and times I wished I was dead,'' recounted one teenager. In August 1991 young people in the Beechmount, Ballymurphy and St James areas of West Belfast were arrested and brutalised during interrogation.

Margaret Morgan described her son's ordeal. ``James was interrogated for hours at a time by teams of RUC members. He was repeatedly beaten and kicked. He was humiliated, degraded and sexually assaulted. James was repeatedly slapped on the back of the head. I saw James five days after he was taken from the house. I hardly recognised him, he looked so bad. He was very blue and could hardly walk. He just didn't look like my child.''

Nineteen-year -old James Morgan later collapsed in his cell. He was left to lie in his own excrement for two days before being taken to hospital where he was considered so seriously ill that he was given the Last Rites.

One group of detainees whose experiences have been ignored is those placed under house, or room arrest during raids by the British army and RUC.

Detention is within the detainee's home and the duration of the arrest is relatively short, usually a matter of hours rather than days, but the impact of what is often a traumatic ordeal can last for months, even years.

In the last 30 years hundreds of thousands of nationalist families have been placed under house arrest during raids. In one four month period in the late 1980s over 6,000 nationalist homes were raided.

A raid is a violent violation of a space most usually associated as a place of safety. For many children, it is the ultimate erosion of their sense of security. Those held during raids not only suffer the psychological trauma of watching the destruction of their personal property but often endure violent assault and verbal abuse as well.

Jacqueline Donnelly was in the bath when in November 1989 a raiding party smashed through the front windows and doors of her mother's home. ``I heard my daughter screaming from the bathroom. She... managed to pull a shirt on before the door was kicked in. She was kicked, punched and thrown downstairs. She had given birth only 14 days earlier and they kicked her so hard in the stomach her pelvic bone was badly bruised and she needed hospital treatment.''

Detention during a raid is often accompanied by malicious acts of cruelty by the raiders. During a particularly vindictive raid in April 1990 on the Andersonstown home of Lucy Murray, the raiding party mutilated and killed two pet rabbits in front of three children. The rabbits were kicked to and fro as members of the raiding party played `football' until the animals died.

A year after the raid, Lucy's youngest child, three year old Niamh, was still traumatised. ``Niamh was very distressed after the raid. She began to have nightmares. She would wake up screaming. She began bed-wetting and refusing to go to bed alone or sleep in her own room. She became very dependent. She won't play with other children in the street. Most of the time she just wants to sit on my knee.''

As in other forms of detention, when the person detained is female, sexual abuse can often accompany other forms of brutalisation. In 1992, a young woman from Poleglass was placed under room arrest for several hours. With half a dozen armed soldiers and RUC officers standing `guard', the young mother was forced to watch the obscene antics of a British soldier outside her front window, while his colleagues commented on his sexual prowess and speculated on what the young woman of the house might ``need''.

By the early 1990s the ill treatment and torture of detainees was once again hitting the headlines and attracting the attention of human rights organisations, most notably Amnesty International. In the summer of 1991 Amnesty published a special report on the British government's abuse of human rights in the Six counties, citing a number of specific cases of ill treatment and torture of detainees. Within a month of the report, Amnesty was to take the unprecedented step of issuing an International Urgent Order to protect a young Belfast teenager, Damien Austin, who had suffered severe mental and physical abuse in Castlereagh.

Helsinki Watch repeated allegations that physical ill treatment during in interrogation in the north of Ireland was widespread.

A group of British lawyers went even further. A report by the Haldane Society identified nine specific techniques of ill treatment and concluded torture during interrogation was being systematically employed and not ``as the British government claims simply due to the misconduct of a few rogue RUC interrogators.''

In November 1991 the British were summoned to appear before the United Nations Committee against Torture to answer serious allegations lodged by Amnesty International and the Six County based Committee for the Administration of Justice. Only a year before Britain had been forced to derogate from the European Court of Human Rights.

In 1994 the British sent a team of top civil servants to answer further allegations of ill treatment and torture at the UN. The committee remained unimpressed and ordered the closure of Castlereagh, immediate access to legal representation for detainees and the video recording of interrogations. The British government declined but the pressure continues. At a UN hearing earlier this year the British government again faced international condemnation on its record of treatment of detainees in the North of Ireland.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. To mark the occasion British television screened, ``In the Name of the Father'', the story of the arrest, brutal interrogation and false conviction of the Guildford Four. The screening was a small recognition of the suffering inflicted on Irish people by the British state over the past thirty years.


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