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January 20, 2005

For UK Troops, Abuse Only Happens if Photographed

by Jim Lobe

LONDON - The court martial of three British soldiers for abuse of Iraqi prisoners has established that a soldier is only as bad as the photographs of the abuse that get taken.

Three British soldiers face court martial over abuse of Iraqi prisoners. Which means only three among more than 65,000 British soldiers who have served in Iraq over the last two years, British military leaders said Wednesday. It was only an aberration, military leaders said as they sought to squash outrage in the media.

"Brute Camp" read the headline in The Sun tabloid. The Daily Mirror found the revelations "shocking ... appalling" like many British leaders said they did. "Britain's Shame" read the headline in the Daily Mail.

But the shock and the shame was less over the abuse than the fact that it was British soldiers seen to be behind it. The new pictures from the coalition soldiers' album have dispensed with the myth that British soldiers were somehow better and more disciplined than their partners in the U.S. forces. The Abu Ghraib pictures had led to silent and sometimes not-so-silent boasts that this was something British soldiers would never do.

The British pictures show soldiers forcing Iraqi prisoners to simulate anal and oral sex. Another shows a soldier on top of an Iraqi prisoner bound in a net. Earlier photographs showing British abuse of Iraqi prisoners were revealed to be fake. But they were fake pictures that gave a glimpse of a true story.

While the tabloid headlines screamed shock, many in Britain responded rather differently to these images than they did to the photographs of abuse at the hands of U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib.

The Britain-based Amnesty International, which is often quick to condemn such abuse when it becomes evident, did not come up with any condemnation after the photographs went public Tuesday. A press spokesman at Amnesty told IPS Wednesday that the human rights organization had not issued any statement over these pictures of abuse. He said he would call back with a comment, but did not.

Liberty, the other busy human rights group in Britain, also offered no comment. A spokesman said the case was outside their remit, even though the group has taken a stand on Iraqi cases in a British court before.

The case of human rights abuses by British soldiers in Iraq has been taken up so far primarily by the Birmingham-based Public Interest Lawyers (PIL). The group has been acting in 40 cases of torture and killings by British forces.

In a statement Wednesday to the attorney general on behalf of the relatives of the Iraqis killed by British forces, PIL said the photographs only revealed more of what their clients had told them.

"Nine of our clients were subjected to torture and ill and degrading treatment by UK forces in occupied Iraq," the group said in its statement. "Three others … were tortured to death." In these torture cases, the group said, "there is the clearest possible evidence of ill treatment and torture that is far worse than that portrayed in the photographs."

The lawyers group added: "It seems there may have been a torture policy for UK forces in existence, and that these incidents are not the sole responsibility of low ranking soldiers." The lawyers group said there was evidence that in the nine cases it had taken up, the men "were tortured over weeks by shifts of soldiers answerable to at least one officer."

Stress and interrogation techniques used by British forces included "ritual humiliation of Muslim males, and beatings if the soldiers were not satisfied that games were performed properly such as dancing like Michael Jackson or remembering the names of footballers," the group said.

The lawyers group added that "our clients are appalled that over 20 months have passed since the first of these incidents without a proper investigation."

Phil Shiner, the solicitor acting in these cases said: "It seems that the world takes little note unless there are pictures. My Iraqi civilian clients were tortured to death or the brink of death by UK forces. It seems that there is clear evidence of systematic abuse and torture by UK forces which must now be the subject of an independent investigation. Those responsible, no matter how far up the chain of command, must be made accountable."

There is little indication that accountability will climb this chain of command. The military leadership continues to stress that the instances of torture – which took place within a few weeks of the invasion of Iraq – are individual aberrations, and not practice sanctioned by higher officers.

British soldiers facing the military court could face a maximum sentence of 10 years imprisonment, which is the sentence handed out to the U.S. soldier Charles Graner over the Abu Ghraib abuse.

Graner said at his conviction that he had only followed orders. He said he had complained to senior officers about the torture, but had been told that rough treatment must continue. Graner's seniors have not been brought to face court martial, and the British soldiers' bosses are not expected to face punishment either.

Three other U.S. soldiers face court martial, while another three have pleaded guilty. That means that the military coalition leaders in both the United States and Britain have brought only seven soldiers to the military court; four in the United States and now three in Britain. And these are all cases where photographs were produced.

The rest of more than a quarter of a million soldiers who have served to occupy Iraq for close to two years now are by this implication entirely innocent because their actions were not photographed, or the photographs not produced.

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  • Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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