Veteran British journalist Robert Fisk examines the use of torture by the British Army in Iraq, highlighted by the recent case of the murder of Baha Mousa and draws parallels with what he witnessed in the 1970s of the abuses carried out by the British Army in Ireland. As he writes in the Independent:
‘I had spent years in Belfast, listening to the same kind of arrogant, vicious, indifferent reaction to the Army’s brutality. It was always the same. Terrorists. Terrorist propaganda. The extraordinary discipline of British squaddies under enormous pressure, etc, etc, etc. Then – when the game was up and the evidence too fresh and too overwhelming – I used to get what we would today call the “Abu Ghraib response”. A “few bad apples”. Always a “few bad apples”.
Hundreds of thousands of fine British soldiers behaving with exemplary courage and courtesy, in danger of their lives 24 hours a day – you will read this stuff in the usual newspapers today. They were the real victims of these “bad apples” – the actual victims, the 14 Catholic dead on Bloody Sunday in Derry, Baha Mousa in Basra, were the sub-victims who had somehow got in the way. They could be lied about.
Where did all these “bad apples” come from, I used to ask, along with their complacent, complicit officers? I recall the day the Gloucestershire Regiment ran amok in Belfast, smashing all the downstairs windows of a Catholic street just before they returned to Britain. Untrue, of course. Terrorist propaganda. Then a “few bad apples”. Was I on the side of the IRA? And so it went on. And on.
It wasn’t the brutality that was “systematic”. It was the lying that was systematic. In Northern Ireland, among the Americans after Abu Ghraib and Bagram…
When I went to see one of Baha’s friends – newly released by his British killers – he appeared to have lost a kidney to the treatment he had received. He wept. His face was blue with bruises. Yes, this was my country which had done this.
…Baha Mousa’s nose was broken. There was blood above the corpse’s mouth. The skin had been ripped off his wrists. According to his friend, Baha had been crying and pleading for his life from beneath his hood. “They gave us the names of footballers and cursed us with them as they attacked us,” he said.
The Brits did the same in Northern Ireland, I remember. Catholics would often tell me they were given the names of footballers before the beatings began.
A bit systematic, perhaps? “They were kick-boxing us in the chest and between the legs and in the back…” Baha’s friend said. “He kept asking them to take the bag off and said he was suffocating. But they laughed at him and kicked him more.”’
The torture techniques of the British Forces in Ireland were known, and publicised, from a very early date as documented in this report covering the period of December 1971 to February 1972 in the British Army bases of Holywod and Girdwood barracks. Remember, this report summaries cases of physical and psychological torture in two British military bases for a period of just three months. There were dozens of British military and paramilitary installations across the North of Ireland at this time, where prisoners were being held and interrogated. On its own it makes for chilling reading, but taken with Robert Fisk’s descriptions above…
‘THE PRINCIPAL METHODS OF TORTURE USED IN HOLYWOOD AND GIRDWOOD BARRACKS
1. Placing a man in “search position,” single finger of each hand to the wall, legs well apart and well back, on the toes, knees bent, for prolonged periods. [After a period of 5 minutes in the “search position” prisoner begins to experience discomfort in arms and legs. After 10 minutes it starts to become painful. After 15 to 20 minutes majority of prisoners collapse]
2. Heavy punching to the pit of the stomach to man in “search position.” [The exposed nature of the position increases force of blow, causing the prisoner to fall forward and to ground, usually causing greater injuries]
3. Kicking the legs from under a man in the “search position” so that he falls to the ground, banging his head on the wall, or radiator, or ground.
4. Beating with batons on the kidneys and on the privates in “search position.” [The exposed nature of the position increases force of blows, causing the prisoner to fall forward and to ground, usually causing greater injuries]
5. Kicking between the legs while in the “search position.” This is very popular among the RUC officers [paramilitary police] and they often do it for periods of half an hour or an hour. [The exposed nature of the position increases force of blows, causing the prisoner to fall forward and to ground, usually causing greater injuries. After 3 or 4 kicks many prisoners will collapse or fall into unconsciousness]
6. Putting a man in “search position” over a very powerful electric fire or radiator. [Prisoner suffers both from the painful nature of the “search position” and heat from the fire or radiator, often inducing burns to the legs, lower torso, arms and face]
7. Stretching a man over benches with two electric fires underneath and kicking him on the stomach. [Prisoner suffers both from the painful nature of the position, with the heat from the fires inducing burns to the legs and torso, as well as the blows to the stomach. Fainting from pain and trauma is common.]
8. Rabbit punching to the back of the neck while in “search position.” [The exposed nature of the position increases force of blow, causing the prisoner to fall forward and to ground, usually causing greater injuries]
9. Banging the head against the wall. [A favoured method, breaking noses, fracturing jaws, causing damage to eyes and teeth, and inducing unconsciousness in prisoner]
10. Beating the head with a baton in crescendo fashion. [A favoured method, breaking noses, fracturing jaws, causing damage to eyes and teeth, and inducing unconsciousness in prisoner]
11. Slapping the ears and face with open hand. [A favoured method, causing pain and inducing disorientation in prisoner]
12. Twisting the arms behind the back and twisting fingers. [A favoured method, causing fracturing and ligament damage to fingers and arms, and inducing unconsciousness in prisoner]
13. Prodding the stomach with straight fingers. [A favoured method, causing pain and inducing disorientation in prisoner]
14. Chopping blows to the ribs from behind with simultaneous blows to the stomach. [A favoured method, causing pain and inducing disorientation in prisoner]
15. Hand squeezing of the testicles. [A favoured method, causing pain, inducing disorientation, humiliation and fear in prisoner]
16. Insertion of instruments in the anal passage. [A favoured method, causing pain, inducing humiliation and fear in prisoner]
17. Kicking on the knees and shins. [A favoured method, causing pain and inducing disorientation in prisoner]
18. Tossing the prisoner from one officer to another and punching him while in the air. [A favoured method, causing pain and inducing disorientation in prisoner]
19. Injections. [So-called “injections” could be made with the use of an empty syringe, inserting a needle into vulnerable parts of the body, including the gums, testes, penis, hands, etc. to cause pain or fear in a prisoner. Otherwise a cocktail of narcotics were used in actual injections, usually amphetamine or “speed”. However in British installations at this period other drugs were also used on prisoners including sodium thiopental and sodium amytal (the so-called “truth drugs”), lysergic acid diethylamide (“LSD” or “acid”) and, later, heroin. Sometimes prisoners were threatened with syringes claimed to be filled with a poisonous or contagious substance]
20. Electric cattle prod was used. [Causes pain, disorientation and fear in prisoner]
21. Electric shocks given by use of a machine. [Causes pain, disorientation and fear in prisoner]
22. Burning with matches and candles. [Causes pain, disorientation and fear in prisoner]
23. Deprivation of sleep. [Causes disorientation and fear in prisoner making their more susceptible to physical and psychological torture]
24. Urinating on prisoners. [Causes humiliation and feelings of degradation in prisoner]
25. Psychological tortures:
(a) Russian roulette. [Loading a revolver pistol with one bullet, leaving the other chambers empty, spinning the chambers, holding the weapon to the prisoner’s head and pulling the trigger]
(b) Firing blanks. [Fired to the side or back of the head of hooded or unhooded prisoners]
(c) Beating men in darkness. [Prisoners in a darkened room, hooded or blindfolded and beaten by up to a dozen men with fists, boots, truncheons, sticks, etc. over a period of 5 to 15 minutes]
(d) Blindfolding. [Prisoners left blindfolded, and normally handcuffed or otherwise bound, for periods of 48 to 72 hours]
(e) Assailants using stocking masks.
(f) Wearing surgical dress. [Prisoners led to believe that they were to be subject to torture via invasive surgery]
(g) Staring at white perforated wall in small cubicle.
(h) Use of amphetamine drugs. [Commonly known as ‘speed’, prisoners injected with high doses inducing fever-like conditions, disorientation, confusion, blurred vision, numbness, etc. Frequently administered by military medical personnel in co-operation with interrogators]
(i) Prisoners are threatened; threats to their families, bribes offered, false confessions are used. [Intelligence information gleaned through informers, spies, surveillance, etc. frequently used to overawe, intimidate prisoners. Threats of murder, beatings, rape and sexual assault made against the family members of prisoners, including children and the elderly, sometimes with the use of photos or film montages of family members taken by Forces’ personnel. High sums of money, reaching into the tens of thousands, offered as bribes. Pre-written confessions signed by prisoners under threat]’
This list of recorded tortures above, physical and psychological, show just how much could be inflicted in a short period of 12 weeks in two local military installations sited in a small area with a relatively small local population, in a land on Britain’s doorstep (in fact, in a territory Britain claimed was British). And, as I stated already, dozens of these installations existed across the North of Ireland – and some still do.
The Guardian newspaper outlined last year the use of torture in a report mainly focused on just one paramilitary police base in the North of Ireland, albeit a particularly infamous one:
‘Castlereagh interrogation centre in east Belfast, the scene of many of the complaints of police brutality at the heart of current appeals, was a forbidding place with a terrifying reputation.
It was the subject of several Amnesty International complaints, one government commission of inquiry and at least one secret internal police investigation.
For more than 20 years the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and successive British government ministers maintained that IRA propaganda was largely to blame for its notoriety, and that whatever abuses did occur were the responsibility of a few “rotten apples”.
However, a number of former RUC interrogators, men who worked at Castlereagh during the 70s, 80s and 90s, have recently told the Guardian that the beatings, the sleep deprivation and the other tortures were systematic, and were, at times, sanctioned at a very high level within the force.
While the sources insist that not all suspects were mistreated, both IRA suspects and loyalists were beaten, burned with cigarettes or lighters, forced to assume stressful positions for long periods, stripped and humiliated, and sometimes threatened with murder. Some suffered such severe injuries that they were taken to hospital.
Some two-strong interrogation teams became known for a particular form of abuse, and would be called upon to inflict it on the more recalcitrant suspects.
A handful, for example, specialised in a technique known as “dorsi-flexing” – stretching a suspects’ wrists or elbows into painful positions, sometimes for hours at a time. Eventually, one former interrogator recalls, doctors examining suspects after interrogation found that this caused slight swelling. “These men were quietly told: ‘Stop it – your system is showing through here’.”
Some interrogators simply punched suspects as close to the centre of their stomachs as possible, knowing that soft tissue bruised less when not located near bone.
At other police stations, such as Strand Road in Derry, some suspects were interrogated in bedrooms intended for the accommodation of single officers. “There would be one bathroom for every six or so bedrooms,” one source recalls. “The baths would be filled with water and suspects would be forced under.”
At Omagh, detectives questioned some suspects inside an enormous disused armoury with heavy steel doors, a place that could unsettle even the interrogators at times.
All the former detectives who spoke to the Guardian said alcohol played a part, with some of the most severe beatings being meted out after interrogators had taken a break, during which they would down a few whiskies or vodkas.
Another, more bluntly, said he had obtained confessions by employing what he described as “torture, and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” – exactly what was prohibited by law.
Police doctors, on standby to offer suspects an examination before interrogation, and to check them again before they were charged, began to see increasing evidence of mistreatment. Some prisoners required immediate hospital treatment. Some doctors began to complain, both privately and publicly.
Many of the victims would be deeply reluctant to speak out, however, saying they had been warned that worse would follow if they lodged a complaint.
Complaints of severe beatings at Castlereagh did not end completely, however, and a decade later such allegations became common once more.’
The use of torture by the British Forces in Ireland throughout the 1970s, ‘80s and 90s was relatively commonplace, an accepted (if latterly unacknowledged) part of military and police techniques for interrogating prisoners or terrorizing the local population. In fact, its use in Ireland goes back simply centuries. That some politicians and newspapers in Britain can claim that it is not part of the culture of the British armed forces, that it is the work of a few “bad apples”, flies in the face of decades of documented evidence, not just from the victims but from the victimisers.
- Baha Mousa, Northern Ireland and “bad apples” (politics.ie)
- Robert Fisk: It’s not the brutality that is ‘systematic’. It’s the lying about it (independent.co.uk)
- Baha Mousa inquiry reveals damning findings (independent.co.uk)
- Beyond Baha Mousa | Clive Baldwin (guardian.co.uk)
- Damning findings of Baha Mousa inquiry (independent.co.uk)
- Baha Mousa’s death casts a shadow over British army, says top general (guardian.co.uk)