May 18, 2007 – The British Army is facing new allegations that it was involved in “forced disappearances”, hostage-taking and torture of Iraqi civilians after the fall of the regime of Saddam Hussein.
One of the claims is made by the former chairman of the Red Crescent in Basra, who alleges he was beaten unconscious by British soldiers after they accused him of being a senior official in Saddam’s Baath party.
The family of another Iraqi civilian claims he was arrested and kidnapped by the British in order to secure the surrender of his brother, who was also accused of being a high-ranking member of the party. He was later found shot dead, still handcuffed and wearing a UK prisoner name tag.
Both cases are being prepared for hearings in the High Court in which the Government will be accused of war crimes while carrying out the arrest and detention of alleged senior members of the Baath party.
Last month, the first British soldier to be convicted of a war crime was jailed for a year and dismissed from the Army after being convicted of mistreating Iraqi civilians, including the hotel worker Baha Mousa, who died of his injuries at the hands of British soldiers. Six other soldiers, including Col Jorge Mendonca, were cleared of all charges.
Lawyers and rights groups say the worrying aspect of these latest allegations is that they show evidence of systemic abuse by British soldiers soon after the fall of Saddam.
Fouad Awdah Al-Saadoon, 67, chairman of the Iraqi Red Crescent in Basra, alleges he was visited by British soldiers at his offices in the city on 12 April 2003 and was taken to the British base at the former Mukhabarat [intelligence] building. In his witness statement, Mr Saadoon said he was accused of being a member of the Baath party and of using his organisation’s ambulances secretly to transport Iraqi militia.
In a detailed account of the abuse that he alleges he suffered, Mr Saadoon recalls: “As soon as I went inside they started beating me. They used electric cables and wooden batons and they harshly punched me with their hands and boots. I had a heart problem, I was a diabetic and had high blood pressure. I was hit repeatedly on my eyes which made me collapse unconscious.”
Mr Saadoon was later transferred to the joint American/British-run detention centre called Camp Bucca, in southern Iraq, which the British had set up to process prisoners at the start of the war. He was interrogated for five days. Because of the injuries sustained during the beatings his condition worsened and he claims the British flew him to Kuwait for a heart operation. There he claims he was visited by the International Federation of the Red Crescent whose representatives expressed concern at his alleged treatment by the British.
In the second case, a 26-year-old Iraqi civilian, Tarek Hassan, was arrested in a dawn raid by British troops involved in the rounding up of Baath party officials on 24 April 2003. His family allege he was held hostage by the British in exchange for the surrender of his brother, Kadhim Hassan, a member of the Baath party.
Five months after his arrest, his family received a phone call to say his body had been found dumped in Samarra, north of Baghdad and 550 miles from the detention centre where he had been held. Kadhim Hassan, 37, has spent the past three years trying to establish the circumstances that led to the death of his brother. Now Iraqi human rights workers and British lawyers have uncovered vital witnesses to his arrest and detention. They have also recovered Tarek’s UK identity tag, which indicates he was a British prisoner.
In his witness statement, Kadhim recalls the night his bother was arrested. “The British were looking for me as I was a high-ranking member of the Baath party,” he said. “I suspect that a financial dispute with one of my neighbours made him inform the British of my rank and he possibly told them some lies which made them look for me.” Kadhim had left the family a few hours before the armoured vehicles carrying the soldiers arrived. When his sisters contacted the British to find out where the British had taken Tarek, they were told that he would only be released if Kadhim gave himself up. That was the last they heard of him until five months later.
“He was found,” said Kadhim, “by locals in the countryside … We went to collect him from the morgue in Samarra, where we found him with eight bullet wounds to his chest. They were Kalashnikov bullets. His hands were tied with plastic wire and had many bruises.”
Now it emerges that Mr Saadoon, who has left Iraq and is working as a businessman in Dubai, met Tarek shortly after he was flown back to Camp Bucca from Kuwait, where he had been receiving medical care.
“I was brought back to Camp Bucca in a van on 21 April and placed in a tent, which held 400 prisoners. On 24 April Tarek Hassan was brought to our tent. He was very scared and confused. He told me British troops had raided his house and were looking for his brother who left the house before the soldiers had arrived. As I was in bad health, Tarek used to bring me food and care for me. Tarek was never interrogated while I was at Camp Bucca.”
On 27 April the International Federation of the Red Crescent requested the British to free Mr Saadoon and that night he and all 200 others were released in the middle of the night on the highway between Basra and Zubai. “We had to walk 25 miles to reach the nearest place where we could hire cars,” remembers Mr Saadoon.
The Government denies being involved in the injuries suffered by Mr Saadoon or responsibility for Tarek’s death. In letters to the family, the Ministry of Defence makes the point that the bullets that may have killed him were fired from a Kalashnikov weapon and that the area where his body was found was not an area of operations associated with British forces.
But the Hassan family’s solicitor, Phil Shiner, of Public Interest Lawyers, said the evidence showed Tarek disappeared at the hands of UK forces and that the circumstances of his release “significantly increased the risk to his life”.
In recent correspondence, the MoD has admitted to the Hassan family that Tarek was held at Camp Bucca but claims that it is a US-run camp and so not the responsibility of the British.
Mr Shiner, who is acting in both cases, said: “The Government deny any responsibility in a case where a man has been kidnapped by UK forces and killed. It is a matter of public record that our agents were torturing Iraqis at Camp Bucca and continued to hand over detainees to the Iraqi criminal system even though there was a serious risk of torture or death in detention. This case is important because if the UK have jurisdiction it cannot allow these incidents to continue and must properly investigate previous incidents”.
Mazin Younis, chair of the Iraqi League, a UK-based rights group, said: “The cases we have reported so far may only be the tip of an iceberg of systematic abuse procedures devised high up the command chain in the Army. The scale of such cases greatly necessitates the need for the Government to start a public inquiry.”
Camp Bucca, a ‘holding facility’ with a history of allegations
The secure holding facility in the desert near the city of Umm Qasr, close to the Kuwaiti border, was originally called Camp Freddy and used by British forces to hold Iraqi prisoners of war.
But in April 2003 control of the camp was transferred to the Americans, although there was a “secure and discrete” unit within the camp that remained exclusively British. In 2003 the British had control of two tent compounds, holding roughly 400 prisoners each. The Americans had six similar compounds.
The camp is designed to hold between 2,000 and 2,500 prisoners but figures released in March 2006 estimated that it held 8,500 Iraqi detainees.
There have been a number of inquiries into alleged abusive treatment at the camp, mostly related to the Americans.
In February 2005 American soldiers killed four detainees and injured six others to quell a riot in which prisoners were armed with stones.
But the British have also been accused of abuse, specifically the hooding of prisoners, which led to concerns being raised with the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Six of the men detained with Baha Mousa were later taken to Camp Bucca. Conditions in the camp are known to be primitive, with open trenches used as lavatories.
The prisoners were forced to sleep on the desert floor, at risk from scorpions and snakes, and were only given one blanket at night when temperatures can fall below zero.
Since May 2003, 27 prisoners have escaped from Camp Bucca, 18 of whom have been recaptured. A number of attempts at mass escape have been foiled.
The Ministry of Defence says that apart from two spells in 2003, Camp Bucca has been run by the Americans.
Soldiers in the dock
On 15 May 2003 the 1st Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers captured Iraqis looting an aid camp in Operation Ali-Baba. They were detained for a brief period during which they were beaten, forced to simulate oral and anal sex and suspended from a forklift truck. Later that month, Fusilier Gary Bartlam, 20, of Tamworth, Staffordshire, took a film to be developed containing 22 photographs of abuse taking place. This triggered a lengthy court martial at a British Army barracks in Osnabruck, Germany. Bartlam pleaded guilty to three charges of ill treatment of Iraqi prisoners. Cpl Daniel Kenyon, 33, from Newcastle, denied six charges of abuse. He was convicted of three, cleared of two charges and the remaining charge was dropped. L/Cpl Mark Cooley, 25, from Newcastle, denied two charges of abuse but was found guilty of both. L/Cpl Darren Larkin, 30, from Oldham, Greater Manchester, admitted to one charge of assault but denied another. The second charge was dropped.
The hotel worker and son of an Iraqi police colonel died on 16 September 2003 while in custody of the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment at a detention centre near Basra. The building had formerly been the secret service headquarters of Ali Majid (Chemical Ali). Cpl Donald Payne, 36, became Britain’s first convicted war criminal when he admitted inhumanely treating civilian detainees. Six other soldiers were cleared by a military court in Bulford, Wiltshire, of abusing Mr Mousa and other detainees.