Issue 2 - 2024 200dpi

31 October 2002 Edition

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Britain must come clean on CR gas

Long Kesh prisoners exposed in 1974

In the wake of the tragedy in Moscow, in which scores of hostages were killed by a nerve gas pumped into a theatre by Russian forces attempting to end a siege by Chechen rebels, this article by Coiste na nIarchimí's JIM McCANN on the British Army's use of CR gas against republican and loyalist prisoners in Long Kesh in 1974 is timely indeed.

In the year 2000 alone, British arms manufacturers sold £3 billion worth of arms to countries all over the world; such as Israel (£12.5m), Iran £12m), India (£64.5m), Pakistan (£6m), Oman (£96m), Turkey (£188m), China (£51m), Malaysia (£138.5) the list goes on and includes most, if not all, of the most sadistic regimes on earth.

These arms are sold with export licenses approved by the British Department of Trade after consultation with the British Foreign Office, the British Department of International Development and the British Ministry of Defence, which is itself a major arms producer. The work of these official gunrunners is cloaked by an Official Secrets Act that firstly stops questions being asked and then hides the answers behind confidentiality clauses.

Fact: Britain is the world's second biggest arms dealer after the USA. The few countries in the world that Britain will not sell arms to include Iraq, Angola and Sierra Leone. However, that is not to say they are left out of the loop as some of the countries that Britain does sell arms to have been known to sell them on to countries and regimes that are not supposed to get them.

These sales run from combat aircraft, helicopters, tanks, various types of missile, rocket launchers, machine guns, rifles, side arms and riot control equipment including CS gas.

In the late '50s and early '60s, the British Ministry of Defence (MoD) developed a riot control agent called CR gas. Following a request, the British government supplied the USA with an extensive report on its development in 1962. But after due consideration, the USA rejected the use of CR gas because "not enough is known about the carcinogenic and genotoxic effect on humans".

On 17 December 1998, the debate about CR gas entered the House of Commons, when Ken Livingstone MP posed the question to John Spellar, Minister for the Armed Forces: "For what reason was CR gas selected from the available riot control gases?"

Spellar answered: "CR gas was selected some decades ago from available riot control gases for the counter-terrorist capability." He went on: "Stocks of CR gas continue to be held as tests have confirmed it to be effective as a counter-terrorist response capability."

This begs the question; Why in August 1977 were all remaining stocks of CR gas removed from wherever they where and "stockpiled in the MoD chemical and biologically facility in Porton Down, Wiltshire" (John Spellar), given its capacity to enhance the state's ability to respond to these situations?

CR gas is ten times stronger than CS gas. It is the code name for Dibenz (b.f-1, 4 - oxazepine).

Its effects are listed as very intense skin pain, particularly around moist areas; involuntary closing of the eyes resulting in temporary blindness, which may induce panic or uncontrollable coughing and gasping for breath; eyes close immediately; loss of body motor control; intense burning of skin; leads to immediate incapacitation". (Source: The Technology of Political Control)

While "the use of copious amounts of water is used to 'decontaminate' the victim of CS gas, the use of water would exacerbate the extent of contamination when used against CR gas". (Hansard 1999)

Unfortunately, in spite of British government denials that it was used, republican and loyalist prisoners who were in Long Kesh on 16 October 1974, who both witnessed and suffered the use of CR gas, can confirm John Spellar's assessment of the gas as 'effective'. We can also confirm the results of its use as described by the 'Technology of Political Control'. To the government of the USA we would like to say that their concerns about carcinogenic effects of CR may prove to be well founded, given the research now under way into the state of health of the ex-prisoner community. As to the genotoxic effect, we'll have to wait and see.

So if tests of CR gas have "confirmed it to be effective as a potential counter-terrorist response capability", (Hansard 1999), why are the British not selling it? They sell every other weapon they manufacture with scant regard for ethical consideration. I'm sure the Israelis would love to have it in their war against the Palestinians. Saddam Hussein would relish the opportunity to use it. No doubt the various nefarious juntas of South America could find a use for a weapon with this capability. In 2000, Turkey spent £188m on arms, some to be used on its own people. It might also like the CR potential; strictly for domestic use, of course, in its arsenal.

As we have seen already, the Americans aren't interested. A professor of chemistry I have spoken to said, "it's probably because of the bad experience the Americans had in Vietnam with Agent Orange... it created its own impurities". Another party not interested in the use if CR gas is the British Home Office, which recently turned down a request from the Metropolitan Police (Scotland Yard to you and me) for "CR gas to be made available to them". (Hansard) The Home Office refused the request, stating: "Not enough is known about its carcinogenic or genotoxic effect on humans."

In response to questions asked in the House of Commons over the last three years, firstly by Ken Livingstone and more recently by Kevin McNamara MP, the British government has denied using CR gas in 1974. John Spellar stated, "the British Army has never used CR gas OPERATIONALLY (my italics). (Hansard 11 January 1999)

On 16 October 1974 in Long Kesh, the British Army dropped copious amounts of CR gas from helicopters. The CR was delivered in clusters that separated into small canisters when fired from the helicopter.

Unlike CS gas, which is contained in a large canister about four inches long by four inches in circumference, the CR canister is like a pencil battery. This is by design, as the CS gas was only effective in a relatively small area and could be dealt with fairly rapidly by using wet cloths. CR, on the other hand, because of the nature of the dispersal of the cluster of about 20-25 canisters over a wide area, was impossible to deal with because of the immediate incapacitating effect on its victims.

Coiste na nIarchimí is committed to highlighting the use of CR gas by British soldiers (whether operationally or for testing purposes) on prisoners in 1974. The curtain of secrecy in which the British are attempting to shroud the truth is full of holes. They should accept their responsibility and permit doctors treating the victims to know what they are up against, sooner rather than later.

However, for a growing number of victims it's already too late.

An Phoblacht
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