November 17, 2006
By Michael Evans
THE Army’s high command was accused last night of officially sanctioning the hooding and mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners in direct contravention of the Geneva Convention.
The claims were made by a witness in the court martial of seven soldiers charged in relation to the abuse and ill-treatment of nine Iraqis in Basra in 2003.
Major Antony Royce, called as a witness by the judge in the case, told the court that he was instructed by those higher up the chain of command in Basra to use "conditioning techniques", including putting prisoners in stress positions and hooding them, to prepare detainees for tactical questioning.
He said that the advice had come from a senior army legal adviser. Such techniques are against both the Geneva Convention and the Army’s own rules of engagement.
Major Royce told the court that, after being put in charge of internment, he was told by Major Mark Robinson, a brigade intelligence adviser, to "condition" prisoners. Fearing that this might contravene prisoner-handling tuition he had received in Britain, Major Royce said that he then checked with Major Russel Clifton, the brigade’s legal adviser, and was again told that " conditioning" and hooding were acceptable.
"He [Robinson] instructed me to use conditioning as part of the tactical questioning process," he said. "I then contacted Major Clifton to make sure that what I had been told was right."
Julian Bevan, QC, for the prosecution, put it to Major Royce that both men deny having said that conditioning was acceptable. Of Major Robinson, Major Royce replied: "But he did [say so]." And of Major Clifton he countered: "Yes, he did."
He added: "They washed their hands of it, and left us to it."
Major Royce, formerly The Queen’s Lancashire Regiment’s internment review officer, said that Colonel Jorge Mendonca, the former commanding officer of the QLR who is one of the soldiers on trial, had himself seen the Iraqi prisoners being "conditioned" at the regiment’s detention centre. "He asked why it was taking place," Major Royce said. "I explained that I had cleared it with the chain of command. He was happy that the chain of command and legal advisers had given us that clearance."
Five members of The QLR and two from the Intelligence Corps are on trial. One of the prisoners, Baha Musa, died after 36 hours of being hooded, handcuffed, beaten and deprived of sleep.
The accusations against the British soldiers have alarming parallels with the abuse by some US troops of Iraqi prisoners, notably at the infamous Abu Ghraib detention centre in Baghdad.
A senior British army officer is investigating whether there was any evidence of widespread systemic abuse of Iraqi prisoners in Britain’s area of responsibility in southern Iraq.
Brigadier Robert Aitken, director of army personnel strategy, has been examining the conduct and reputation of officers and soldiers from May 1, 2003, to the end of that year, when many accusations were levelled. His report to army chiefs is due to be handed over after the end of the court martial of the seven soldiers.
The trial, which has been running at Bulford Camp in Wiltshire for eight weeks, will not be completed until the new year.
Colonel Mendonca has pleaded not guilty to the charge of negligently performing a duty by failing to ensure that the Iraqi civilian prisoners under his authority were not ill-treated. Three of his soldiers are charged with a war crime of inhumane treatment of prisoners.
The trial has already heard that hooding prisoners was banned by a government directive as far back as 1972 after accusations of abuse of suspected Irish terrorists in a Northern Ireland detention centre.
Under cross-examination, Major Royce said that it would have been "complete madness" for him to have told Colonel Mendonca that conditioning of prisoners was cleared legally if it had not been the case.
Corporal Donald Payne, 35, has pleaded guilty to inhumanely treating the detainees. He has denied two further charges of the manslaughter of Mr Musa and perverting the course of justice.
The six other defendants have pleaded not guilty to all charges. The trial, before a "jury" panel of senior military officers, continues on Monday.
The Geneva Convention on handling prisoners bans:
# Cruel treatment
# Physical and mental torture
# Humiliating and degrading treatment
# Outrages upon personal dignity