Britain's Abu Ghraib.
Last night's Panorama, which was moved forward as a result of the last two soldiers on trial over the abuse of Iraqi prisoners being cleared, was as depressing as it was damning. It made clear that there had been an obvious closing of ranks amounting to a cover-up over the death of Baha Mousa while he was in British custody in Basra, having suffered 93 separate injuries within 36 hours of being arrested.
As Not Saussure notes, the reason for Colonel Jorge Mendonca's acquittal has now been made public. It seems the evidence of Major Antony Royce was crucial: he contradicted the prosecution's claim that "conditioning" - the use of stress positions, forcing prisoners to stand for long periods with their arms outstretched and hands cuffed, hooding and sleep deprivation, had not been cleared by the "chain of command". Royce told Mendonca that it had been, and it seems he was very much relieved. The judge notes that Mendonca seems to have been a fall guy: he did not do anything that he should have done, and he did not do anything which he shouldn't have done.
Panorama alleged that those other than Corporal Payne, who was forced to admit to being involved in the beatings and other mistreatment which lead to Mousa dying, had not been brought to justice due to both failings in the investigation by the SIB, and through a systematic failure of memory suffered by other soldiers called as witnesses. Payne's lawyer, who sat through this joke of a court martial, confirmed that the words "I don't remember" were used over 600 times during the trial, and commented that he had never seen anything on that scale in a court room.
Mousa and 6 other men were arrested at a Basra hotel in September 2003, a number of weeks after Captain Di Jones, a popular young soldier from the Queen's Lancashire regiment had been killed by an IED. Following a tip-off that weapons were being stored in the hotel, British troops stormed in at 6am, only to find the man who they were really looking for, the hotel's owner, had already fled. Having apparently being informed that those arrested were involved in the death of their comrade, and finding weapons stored (All of the men arrested were later cleared of any involvement in the insurgency, simply being hotel workers. Mousa was the receptionist.), their treatment was from the beginning little short of brutal. This continued throughout their detention: evidence was given that Corporal Payne had "played" the detainees like a choir, kicking and punching them one at a time, relishing the cries and groans his blows brought from the captives. Video footage of Payne shouting and forcing detainees into stress positions was shown to the court. What is not in dispute is that Payne was not the only soldier who took part in the abuse; we know the regiments that were in Iraq at the time, and even some of the soldiers who were involved. That they have not been brought to trial, and now seem unlikely to be is just one of the major injustices of this case.
The other main question is just who did authorise the "conditioning" of detainees. With Abu Ghraib, it went all the way to the top, to Rumsfeld, although his signing off of certain techniques didn't involve the sexual humiliation which was routinely inflicted on those who passed through the American-run jail; that was likely implemented by the CIA officers who were also involved. Brigadier Euan Duncan gave evidence that US commanders had criticised British forces for failing to "extract sufficient intelligence" from those arrested, which presumably led to someone up the chain of command authorising the conditioning practices which had been banned since 1972. Whether this was at the army level or the political level we simply don't know. In relation to the death of Baha Mousa, Antony Royce was told by Major Mark Robinson, a brigade "intelligence adviser" to condition prisoners. Royce, worried this contradicted the firm and clear prisoner-handling training given back in Britain, consulted the brigade's legal adviser, Major Russel Clifton, who assured him that conditioning was permitted.
As Jeremy Vine states at the opening of the programme, from some of the reporting you'd think that no one had died, that beatings had not taken place and that the soldiers involved, whether they were those who were tried or not, had been wrongly maligned. The arrogance and refusal to admit that crimes had been committed was exemplified by the behaviour of Colonel David Black, who emerged from the court to deliver a statement which was brimming with pompous unrighteous anger, eyes flashing beneath spectacles, his every word underlined by a sharp flick of his head. He was in effect suggesting that soldiers shouldn't be held to account, even when the evidence of abuse is as strong as it was in this case. The Scum quotes him as saying:
[Our Boys needed to be able to work] “without looking over their shoulders inhibited by the fear of such actions by over-zealous and remote officialdom”.
The Sun's leader is even worse:
No mention that the Iraqis who were the victims of these "so-called crimes" too deserve nothing less than those responsible being brought to justice.
If anything, this farce is worse than the treatment meted out to those responsible for the abuses at Abu Ghraib. While they were the scapegoats for the decisions made higher up the command chain, in this case it appears that the army itself has gone completely into denial. No one apparently saw anything, or it's strangely slipped their mind. No one knows who authorised the outlawed techniques in the first place. Only Payne, who was unfortunate enough to be the only one who could not escape from justice due to the evidence presented, has so much as admitted that abuses even took place. Hopefully this will be taken into account when he is eventually sentenced. As for the rest of those involved, they can take pride in the way their actions have brought the British army down to the same level as their coalition partner.