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This article was written before the second release of photographs, in the Washington Post, the publication of the Taguba Report, Donald Rumsfeld and Antonio Taguba's respective testimonies to Congress, and many other developments. Matters have now gone so far that I do not feel a re-write of this article is practical.

The photographs

On Thursday, April 29, 2004, the American CBS TV programme 60 Minutes II screened photographs taken at the Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq. Abu Ghraib was an infamous place of torture and execution under Saddam Hussein, and the kind of place which provided some justification for the war in the eyes of those not swayed by arguments of terrorism or weapons of mass destruction. The pictures had apparently been held back by the station for two weeks on the instructions of the Pentagon, which had also recently sought to control images of the coffins of US personnel. Permission was only given to release the pictures when they had begun to appear in other places. The photographs show American troops abusing prisoners in a variety of ways, and are part of the evidence in a continuing investigation into conditions at the prison. The image most widely circulated in the British media shows a dark-skinned man, presumably an Iraqi captive, standing on a small box. He wears a black cape and hood, slightly reminiscent of the form of a Ku Klux Klan uniform. The hood entirely obscures his face, but his thoughts may be guessed at. His outstretched arms are attached to wires which lead up and out of the frame. According to reports, he had been told that if he fell or stepped down from his precarious position, he would be electrocuted. It is claimed that the wires were not in fact part of any circuit, but this cannot be proved or disproved from the evidence. The psychological effect, though, seems incontestable. It has also been reported that other photos supplied show a man in a similar predicament, but without the cover of the cape, and with the wires attached to his genitals.

In other photographs, grinning American soldiers preside over piles of naked men, their captives, who seem to be simulating a sex act. Needless to say, this is not an activity they could be expected to engage in voluntarily. In another photo again, a female American soldier, casually smoking a cigarette, gestures at the groin of a prisoner as he stands in line with others, all naked. Prisoners are shown being attacked by dogs, or pinned under smiling soldiers. According to CBS, a photograph of a battered corpse was also provided. Colonel Jill Morgenthaler, for US central command, stated that the charges against the six soldiers facing court-martial included ordering detainees to masturbate publicly, and assaults of various kinds. Brigadier-General Janice Karpinski, who was in charge of the prison, has been suspended from duty. Just as I was putting the finishing touches to this article, the BBC released photographs showing British troops beating up a captive with rifle butts and urinating on him. According to a report in tomorrow's Daily Mirror the victim was accused of theft; he suffered a broken jaw and extensive bruising, in addition to the psychological effects of his treatment, said to have lasted eight hours. the Mirror photos, and the accompanying story, subsequently proved to be a misleading hoax. Accusations against British troops continued, though. The Abu Ghraib photographs are said to have been handed over to US authorities by a concerned soldier in January. Although CNN's web page seems to play down the gravity and likely truth of these accusations, the general reaction has been one of disgust, revulsion, and anger.

Use of mercenaries

A number of things are striking about these reports. Firstly, the role of mercenaries. Although seventeen military police personnel have been suspended, and six soldiers have been charged with a variety of offences, one of the most serious individual charges seemingly cannot be pressed. An Iraqi boy in his mid teens was allegedly raped at Abu Ghraib by a hired man - CBS refers to him as an interpreter, The Guardian as a contractor, with the implication he was some sort of soldier. CBS also alleges that US personnel abetted the crime by creating a screen of sheets, and that a female soldier photographed the rape. It is claimed that because the sanctions of military law cannot be applied to the alleged perpetrator, nothing can be done about this specific charge. This claim will strike many as remarkable, since the man in question is employed by the US military, and is said to have committed the offence at a site under the control of the military. Moreover, as Iraq is currently under occupation, and policed by a combination of American and Iraqi law enforcement officials, there are non-military legal authorities to deal with such a matter. All responsibility for these mercenaries has been abdicated, it seems. History students may recall a similar situation at the end of the Thirty Years' War. But according to the official US version of events, the war in Iraq has been over for nearly a year. The mercenary in question, and many others employed by CACI International Inc or the Titan Corporation, are working in the detention and interrogation of prisoners of war. Given the high level of caution, even paranoia, evoked by the official stance of the American and British governments over matters of intelligence and security at present, how can the use of non-government personnel in such a context be justified?

Testimony and attitude of accused military personnel

The next point of concern is the terrifyingly amoral and ignorant attitude of the accused. Staff Sergeant Ivan 'Chip' Frederick, interviewed by CBS, said that no training or instruction had been provided to troops on prison duty. "We had no support, no training whatsoever. And I kept asking my chain of command for certain things... like rules and regulations. It just wasn't happening." According to Sgt Frederick's account, he did not even see a copy of the Geneva Convention until after he was charged - at which point he found it on the Internet, where it had been all along. It seems surprising that this is offered as a defence by Sgt Frederick and his lawyer, Gary Myers. One of the photographs shows Sgt Frederick sitting on a detainee, and he is also accused of committing an indecent act, assaulting a prisoner, and ordering prisoners to attack each other. The implication of the 'no instruction' defence is that Sgt Frederick and his fellow soldiers otherwise think it right to humiliate, assault and sexually abuse people placed in their care. Looking at the photographs of naked prisoners forced into sexual or pseudo-sexual contact with each other, it is hard to imagine how any professional soldier could think this appropriate. A soldier ordered by a senior officer to commit such an act should refuse the order, as it is well-known that it is not a sufficient legal defence to state that one was 'just following orders'. Soldiers are not automata, to fulfil the whims of their superiors, any more than captives are toys to gratify the urges of their captors. Myers said that 'Chip Frederick had no idea how to humiliate an Arab until he met up with' senior officers who provided instruction in the methods seen. I am astonished that someone fighting to liberate a country from oppression did not resist such indoctrination more robustly - rather than getting stuck in, as seems to be the case. Amazingly, Sgt Frederick's peace-time occupation is as a prison warder.

The Associated Press published details drawn from a journal kept by Sgt Frederick following his initial questioning in January. According to this volume, Iraqi prisoners held by US forces at Abu Ghraib were made to stand naked for three days in cells whose floors were a yard square. During this treatment, they were not even allowed out to relieve themselves. Sgt Frederick claimed to have questioned this with his battalion commander, who responded that 'I don't care if he has to sleep standing up'. Members of Sgt Frederick's family, and the families of other soldiers awaiting court-martial, have endeavoured to present their relatives as victims of circumstance. Frederick's uncle, Mr William Lawson, who supplied AP with the diary, said his son was 'just the guy they put in charge of the prison'. I am extremely concerned that any person placed in such a position of authority on behalf of the United States should participate in, rather than strive to prevent, these abuses. The grinning faces of the soldiers in the pictures supplied to CBS hardly fit with the presentation of good, decent people following orders with heavy hearts and brooding consciences. They look to me like they're enjoying it. Terrie England, mother of US reservist Lynndie R England, pictured in the foreground of one of the photos of naked prisoners, described the abuses as 'stupid, kid things - pranks'. She also expressed concern that only the US was being held to account for violations of the Geneva Convention. Especially as ending the torture and abuse of captives was one of the purported motivations for the invasion, such a query does not seem to me to excuse the crimes of allied forces at all. Zeenithia Davis, whose husband Javal is said to be another of the accused, suggested that the treatment received by prisoners might have been an appropriate response to misbehaviour on their part. A woman who expects her husband to view involuntary sexual humiliation as an appropriate response to anything might worry when he gets home, I feel.

The wider picture

Then there is the international dimension. The United States is one of very few nations to refuse to sign up to the International Criminal Court. Idealists within the USA asserted that the Land of the Free could not make itself subject to external jurisdiction, and that in any case no American would commit the kinds of crimes which the Court was convened to try. Cynics and anti-American demagogues retorted that the US administration wished to insure itself against the risk of legal action for crimes which might be committed by its representatives - or even planned by its members. It now seems that in this case the cynics were right. The US government has distanced itself from the idea of international oversight in the conduct of war, and must now account for its agents grossly breaching legal and moral standards. An exceptionally strong position must be maintained by the leadership if the abuses at Abu Ghraib are not to be seen as the fruit of wilful unilateralism on their part.

The International Court is probably of mainly academic interest at this stage. A more crucial international aspect of this scandal is the effect it will have on America's credibility. Allied nations may well be less willing to offer troops to serve in Iraq if the existing occupying forces appear to consist in part of lawless mercenaries, sadistic voyeurs, and rapists. The reaction from America's existing enemies will likely be much worse. The Pentagon's reluctance to let the pictures become public has been attributed to fears for the safety of hostages currently being held by rebels in Iraq. Whilst it is easy to say that the Pentagon is not less afraid of losing face, or that it relishes secrecy for its own sake, concern for the hostages is a real enough issue. Many of those who have so far been released have not reported particularly harsh treatment. Now that America has raised the stakes, the fear must be that no more such cases of leniency will happen. And images of Arab men forced into degrading situations, made to abase themselves before laughing and jeering American women, will be a powerful propaganda tool for the diffuse assortment of agents provocateurs collectively referred to as Al Qaeda. When the USA invaded Iraq, few observers taking a critical view of the situation believed that Osama bin Laden's gang of rabid fundamentalists had much connection with the quasi-fascist, secular, Ba'athist regime. Now, a year after that order passed away, it seems more and more likely that Iraq will prove a fertile recruiting ground for terrorists. These new revelations of abuse will enable the expansion of the so-called global terror network much further afield.

Comparisons with related issues

The Geneva Convention which Sgt Frederick seems to think of as the answer to all his moral doubts does not seem to trouble his masters at the Pentagon unduly. The continued internment of 'enemy combatants' at Guantanamo Bay features some of the same issues as the Abu Ghraib case. The limits of jurisdiction, which inhibit action against the mercenary accused of rape in Iraq, are also cited when legal action is brought on behalf of the detainees in Cuba. Although the camp is entirely owned and operated by the United States military, on behalf of the government, it is regarded as extra-territorial when anyone calls for public trial by jury or the suspension of cruel and unusual punishment. President Bush's statement in connection with the Abu Ghraib photographs that 'that's not the way we do things in America' will prompt some to suggest that Americans just go to Cuba to do them. The detention without trial or charge, the open cages, the hoods and shackles, and the lack of access to lawyers or other outside contact seen at Guantanamo are not what the western world commonly understands by justice, no matter what accusation has been made. The treaties and laws which were allegedly not explained to the soldiers in Iraq are claimed not to apply in Cuba, for reasons which appear opaque to the majority of lawyers. Perhaps the lack of understanding of these things on the part of the accused in Iraq can be attributed in part to the government's very public contempt for them elsewhere. While individual responsibility for these crimes cannot and should not be avoided, the role of central government in promoting human rights is at issue as well. Amazingly, the former commander of the Cuban camp has been dispatched to Iraq following the breaking of this scandal in order to clean up the prison system.


I hope that these comments do not seem too strongly coloured by my liberal political opinions. The traditional power base of the current administration is among conservative Christians in Middle America. While issues of foreign conflict and military command may slightly affect people's feelings on this issue, I would hope that few Christians would sanction the acts that have been committed at Abu Ghraib. Similarly, conservatives are in part characterised by a respect for existing laws and traditional standards of moral conduct in public and in private. Few people would describe the actions of the soldiers and mercenaries in this case as upholding those standards or obeying those laws. And as I have mentioned briefly above, concern for world security is at the heart of current US foreign policy. The employment of private mercenaries in facilities which question captives sits very badly with the understandable insistence on maintaining the integrity of intelligence data. Americans who respect their armed forces might reasonably ask why the administration has not strengthened those forces enough for them to be able to perform these crucial security functions themselves.

Sources: www.cbsnews.com, www.guardian.co.uk, news.bbc.co.uk, cnn.com, BBC1 news programming, The Guardian for 30/04/04.

Addendum: This question has occured to me: has anyone attempted to identify the prisoners and offer them counselling or legal aid?