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Surely this is not our own Abu Ghraib?
by Newropeans-Magazine
2009-11-20 10:04:44
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Having just returned home from a consultancy trip, I came across a veritable plethora of articles in our broadsheets about claims that British soldiers in Basra - in the southern part of Iraq, not far from Kuwait - had recreated the torture conditions of Abu Ghraib in order to commit the sexual and physical abuse of Iraqi civilians.

The allegations being investigated by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) raised questions about collusion between Britain and America from 2003 till 2009. They included thirty-three new cases resembling broadly those employed by Americans in Abu Ghraib and formed part of a pre-action protocol letter served on the MoD over allegations of torture techniques prior to the drawdown of our troops. Those instances have purportedly occurred at Camp ‘Akka’ detention facility at al-Zubayr, the Contingency Operating Base at Basra Air Station, Camp Bucca (also known as Camp Freddy), the Divisional Temporary Detention Facility at Sha’aibah Logistics base, Camp Abu Naji and Shatt-al-Arab Camp. According to the British lawyer representing the claimants, there exist strong similarities between American and British instances over the use of sexual humiliation in these six locations.

Is it possible our troops, all 120,000 of them who served valiantly in Iraq under tough conditions, became tainted with such practices and are simply closing ranks? Or is it not more likely that the vast majority have conducted themselves in the highest standards of behaviour, displaying integrity and commitment, and that those cases - if proven to be founded - were only aberrations? Are we witnessing the first signs of a breaking of ranks? After all, I understand that some British soldiers have come forward and recounted what ostensibly happened to father-of-two Baha Moussa before his shocking death in 2003, and so it becomes possible that those new cases could be true too. Is this the tip of an iceberg, or just random cases?

Sadly, politicians - regardless of party affiliations - no longer command much awe or respect these days due to an erosion of faith in their moral rectitude and financial judgment, but our society has by and large supported the way our military has obeyed its orders and done its job despite unfavourable conditions at times. So I assume my readers would understand that it is instinctively hard for me to admit that those troops who are meant to rise above politics let alone remain beyond reproach might have exercised such abuses against Iraqis in Basra and that they actually enjoyed heaping psychological, physical and sexual humiliation upon others. Could it be the pressure and stress of serving in hostile conditions that made some of them ‘crack up’, and is this truly a justification or even an excuse? I cannot pretend to know the absolute truth, and I guess matters will become a little clearer once the investigations - including a public inquiry - reach some conclusion.  After all, I did not initially buy into the abuses exercised by US soldiers in Abu Ghraib, but some of them had been committed indeed, so who says that this did not occur at all in Basra. Yet I insist that the overwhelming majority of our soldiers will have conducted themselves honourably, subscribed to army discipline and been overseen by their superiors in the course of their duties.

Some people might consider me a naïve - or worse scurrilous - apologist for a culture of abuse that has seemingly distorted the military handling of Iraqi prisoners. After all, Rabinder Singh QC, a leading silk and barrister for Baha Mousa’s family and other Iraqi detainees, averred a couple of months ago that “this case is not just about beating or a few bad apples. There is something rotten in the whole barrel.” Well, there might be something rotten in the barrel - after all, we are all human whereby vile instincts lurk somewhere in our systems - but surely it is not the whole barrel. It cannot be - simply - or else our Eurocentric and British precepts about the rule of law, human rights and basic freedoms will be sorely challenged, and many of us will suspect even more affirmatively that our government might have obfuscated the truth from us with many other spins too. But it does not stop here either: after all, we have heard the unceasing mantra that we went to war in Iraq for a global collective security, and yet not only am I unsure about the tangible effects of this war for our overall security, I am even sadder now to realise that this war might have also had the nefarious effect of damaging some of our hardy soldiers.

But let us assume that we learn eventually - inasmuch as ordinary citizens or even an adversarial press are at times allowed to learn anything these days - that those events were factual and real, would we not then also be opening another potential Pandora’s Box? Could we not hear again similar Bagram-style stories coming out of Afghanistan a couple of years down the line and then nod sagely as we rue that we did not nip them in the bud? After all, we went into Iraq claiming to remove a despot, and with him the yoke of oppression against his people, and here we are now busily propping up another despot albeit of a different genre exercising another form of corruption against his people in Afghanistan.

Surely our values are less murky? Surely our history - with its bloody moments but also its redeeming ones - will have taught us to be a tad less unprincipled in our positions? It is at such moments, when my conscience struggles against political doubt, that I seek consolation in a favourite quote by the German pianist Alfred Brendel who said once that “I am always pessimistic, in the hope of being surprised.” I pray so - for all our sakes here in our own country as well as in Iraq. 


Image Dr Harry Hagopian
Ecumenical, legal & political consultant
London, UK

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