The UK government has introduced its new secrecy law in Parliament, which, if enacted, would mean details of torture scandals like this would be hidden for ever.
24 June 2012
This picture of a British soldier with an Iraqi detainee, published in 2005 at a court martial, would never have been released under the UK government's new secret justice law.
Devastating new claims have been revealed of abuse by British soldiers carried out at a secret network of illegal prisons in the Iraqi desert.
One innocent civilian victim is said to have died after being assaulted aboard an RAF helicopter, while others were hooded, stripped and beaten at a camp set up at a remote phosphate mine deep in the desert.
The whereabouts of a separate group of 64 Iraqi men who were spirited away on two RAF Chinooks to a ‘black site’ prison, located at an oil pipeline pumping station, remain unknown.
Perhaps the most shocking aspect of these alleged abuses, which appear to have been flagrant breaches of international law, is that this secret network is claimed to have been sanctioned by senior Ministry of Defence lawyers.
Yet the top British Army lawyer on the ground in Iraq – who was supposed to be responsible for all aspects of prisoner detention – remained completely unaware of it.
Meanwhile, the Government last week introduced its new secrecy law in Parliament, which, if enacted, would mean details of the emerging scandal would be hidden for ever.
The role of both the soldiers and the lawyers in the alleged prisoner abuse will come under the spotlight tomorrow, when the first stage of a legal action on behalf of some of the victims is launched.
If the Justice and Security Bill becomes law, Ministers will be able to demand secret hearings, and to prevent the victims from ever seeing evidence about their claims.
Last night, Lieutenant Colonel Nicholas Mercer, the chief British Army lawyer in Iraq during the 2003 invasion, said what went on in the secret prison network amounted to ‘war crimes’. He said it was his part of his job to monitor the treatment of prisoners taken by British Forces and the conditions at detention facilities. But he was kept ‘totally in the dark’ about the secret network’s existence.
‘This prisoner facility operated entirely outside the normal chain of command,’ said Lieut Col Mercer, who has left the Army. ‘I find it remarkable that I knew nothing about it at the time. What is clear now is that, if the Justice and Security Bill does become law, the truth may never come out. These are alleged war crimes, but what Britain did may never be disclosed. Indeed, the Bill may be specifically designed to prevent such allegations ever coming to light.’
Senior Conservative MP David Davis said the Bill seemed to be ‘tailored to produce a cover-up’. He said: ‘I find it astonishing that the military authorities responsible for the legality of prisoner detention were not even notified about these secret camps. If these allegations are substantiated, they amount to a serious blow to the rule of law. The Bill, if passed, would be another, giving Ministers the power effectively to instruct judges to withhold evidence in court cases.’
The pending action will be taken by solicitor Phil Shiner of Public Interest Lawyers, whose earlier work brought to light details of the murders of the hotel worker Baha Mousa and other Iraqis detained by British troops. The new focus is on a number of almost simultaneous incidents at two black site locations. It is thought there were at least two more.
The first location, a desert oil pumping station known as ‘H1’, was the destination for 64 prisoners picked up by the Australian SAS close to Iraq’s western border on April 12, 2003. This was almost a week after the final collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime, but under international law, there was still a state of war, meaning Britain should have been strictly bound by the Geneva Conventions.
Sources say that H1 was run jointly by British Forces and the American CIA, and that interrogation methods were often brutal.
One of the 64 men, a Baghdad odd-job man named Tariq Sabri, was allegedly kicked to death by a member of the RAF regiment aboard one of the Chinooks. But although there was an official investigation, it failed to establish the cause of Mr Sabri’s death, because he was buried in the desert without a post mortem. A pathologist was not asked whether Mr Sabri should be exhumed for more than a year, at which point he concluded it was too late.
However, a leaked RAF report provides documentary evidence that prisoners on the helicopter were assaulted while they were handcuffed, hooded, and were knelt on if they ‘refused to adopt the required position’.
Another man who ultimately survived was unconscious and unresponsive when the flight landed, and a third lost his prosthetic legs. According to the RAF report, the two unconscious men – one of them Mr Sabri – were loaded, face down, into a Humvee high-mobility tactical vehicle, one on top of the other.
By the time it reached the camp, Mr Sabri was dead. His hood had been fixed so tightly over his face it had to be cut off.
The final fate of the surviving 63 prisoners flown to H1 remains unknown, and there is speculation some, at least, may have been ‘rendered’ to a US prison outside Iraq – yet another potentially illegal act.
The pending action will high- light a second camp, described as ‘Station 22,’ whose existence is today revealed by The Mail on Sunday for the first time.
Witnesses who have made contact with Mr Shiner say it was established at a phosphate mine near the town of Al-Qaim, close to the Syrian border, after Saddam’s regime fell.Three former prisoners, all of them civilians, who say they had no connection with Saddam’s dictatorship or his Ba’ath political party, have given statements to Mr Shiner and his colleagues.
Their contents have been made known to us on an anonymous basis. The first man, now 55, was stopped in his car on April 13, 2003, by British troops manning a roadblock between Al-Qaim and Ramadi, one of the main cities of Al Anbar province. This part of Iraq was not within the British-controlled zone near Basra, although the SAS and other Special Forces troops are known to have operated there.
According to his statement, the man and his two sons were forced out of the car, repeatedly kicked and punched, handcuffed, made to wear thick, suffocating hoods, then put into an armoured personnel carrier, where they were assaulted again. The British Army had supposedly outlawed hooding more than 40 years earlier, following an inquiry into prisoner abuse in Northern Ireland.
They were driven for approximately 45 minutes to a place the man would later recognise – when his hood was removed to allow him to use the toilet – as Station 22, where a detention centre had been set up in a storage shed. The camp had not been registered with the Red Cross, as the Geneva Conventions require.
The man was not a soldier, and neither he nor his sons were armed. Detaining civilians is only lawful in wartime if they can be shown to pose an imminent danger to an occupying army’s forces.
The beatings and hooding continued for another three days. The man’s statement says he was interrogated by a British officer about his supposed knowledge of weapons caches and missiles. Half an hour into one interrogation, the statement goes on, a soldier began removing the man’s clothes, item by item. He says he was shocked but in no position to resist.
Finally, he was forced to stand naked and was still in this state when his sons, also naked, were brought into the interrogation room. He says he feared they were about to be raped: ‘It has been nine years but I can never forget that day.’
Over the next three weeks, many more prisoners were brought to Station 22. Finally, after 22 days, he and his sons were driven away in a British Army vehicle and dumped on a highway between Al-Qaim and the town of Akashat. He later found his car had been burnt out. He had been carrying a substantial sum in cash in order to repay a loan, and according to the statement, this was never returned.
The second witness, a lorry driver aged 45, was stopped at a checkpoint when he went out in search of food. Like the first prisoner, he was hooded, beaten, taken to Station 22 and interrogated about where the old regime had hidden its alleged weapons of mass destruction.
He claimed that when he said he didn’t know, a soldier kicked him so hard that two of his ribs broke. He too was freed after three weeks. In the meantime, his distraught wife, who had not been told of his detention and had assumed he was dead, had suffered a miscarriage.
The third witness, aged 48, says he was hooded, punched and kicked when stopped at the roadblock, detained at Station 22, and interrogated about WMD. He was also stripped naked and, like the others, dropped on the roadside after 22 days.
Lieut Col Mercer said: ‘The allegations are blatant violations of the Geneva Conventions and UN Convention Against Torture. If indeed prisoners were rendered beyond Iraq’s borders, then this is potentially one of the most serious war crimes under the Rome Statute.’
Mr Shiner will attach the statements to a letter he intends to send tomorrow to the Ministry of Defence, demanding a full investigation and a public inquiry.
This, he will say, must also examine the rest of the secret prison network, including H1. If the MoD does not grant his request, he will file a claim for a High Court judicial review, and for full disclosure of all the relevant documents. Mr Shiner said: ‘The evidence of these three Iraqi men raises issues of the utmost constitutional importance. Who knew about these secret sites? Who was responsible for the interrogation of the detainees? Why didn’t the head of Army Legal in Iraq at the time know of them?
‘Most importantly, who gave legal cover for them? These and many other questions must now be answered by the MoD providing full disclosure of relevant documentation, including emails.’
But if the Bill becomes law, Mr Shiner said there was little chance this evidence would ever be revealed: ‘This is exactly the kind of case which the Bill seems to have been designed for.
‘It has all the elements: alleged torture, the use of Special Forces, possible renditions of prisoners to foreign powers. The truth about what happened must be disclosed.’
Like the camps themselves, legal supervision for the inquiry into Mr Sabri’s death did not pass down through the usual military chain of command. Instead, it is understood that it was taken over by civilian lawyers at MODLA, the MoD Legal Advisers, based at the Permanent Joint Headquarters (PJHQ) at Northwood, North-West London.
Lieut Col Mercer said: ‘As the senior military lawyer in Iraq, I want to know why I wasn’t told about any of this. For PJHQ and MODLA to have taken charge of an investigation of this kind is highly irregular.’
An MoD spokesman last night said he could not respond to the allegations until Mr Shiner’s pending action had commenced and had been fully considered by MoD officials.
Earlier this year, Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke admitted MI5 and other security and intelligence agencies have had a significant ‘input’ into the proposed new measures. For more than a year, MI5 Director-General Jonathan Evans has been lobbying Ministers and Shadow Cabinet members, claiming the Bill’s measures are essential in order to protect national security.
The Bill has been introduced in the House of Lords, rather than the Commons, and received its second reading last week. However, several Lib Dems are known to find the Bill ‘unacceptable in its present form,’ including former party leader Lord Ashdown.
Shami Chakrabarti, director of civil liberties campaign group Liberty, said: ‘Lawyers and other officials must be servants of the rule of law, not above it, and if lawyers sanctioned these alleged abuses, they do not deserve the cloak of anonymity. The current Bill would make it highly unlikely that the truth of such cases would ever be aired in public.’