first published in the Sunday Times, Dec 05, 2004.
by Stephen Grey
BRITISH officials in Iraq warned the Foreign Office and American authorities of serious concerns about the treatment of prisoners six months before the torture and sexual abuse at Abu Ghraib was revealed.
Several civil servants seconded to reconstruction jobs in Iraq have described in interviews how they witnessed ill-qualified American guards ignoring basic human rights as they turned Abu Ghraib into a military interrogation facility — rather than the civilian installation they wanted.
Gareth Davies, governor of Pentonville prison in London, discovered in December 2003 that Americans were using leg irons and belly chains to hold prisoners — a violation not only of new Iraqi laws adopted by coalition forces but also, he believed, of international conventions and of Britain’s 1833 Abolition of Slavery Act.
Davies, awarded an OBE yesterday for his six months’ work in Iraqi prisons, protested to American and British officials. He also withdrew British prison staff from Baghdad to avoid complicity in any wrongdoing. The scandal erupted in May this year with publication of photographs showing US guards humiliating their charges.
“At that point in late December, I was pleased there were no longer any UK personnel in the department of prisons in Baghdad because I thought there could easily be a risk of embarrassment were we to be associated,” said Davies.
He criticised American officials for committing a “cardinal sin” of prison management by failing to adopt strict rules for handling inmates.
Davies also revealed that in one US-run jail, juvenile prisoners were punished by being made to stand for hours in contorted “stress” positions that could have led to asphyxia.
He insisted, however, he was not aware of anything “remotely on the scale of the disgusting practices revealed in May 2004 as occurring in Abu Ghraib” — where it emerged that naked prisoners were sexually humiliated and routinely deprived of elementary needs.
When Davies first raised the alarm, the worst of those abuses, including the use of dogs to terrify prisoners, had already taken place.
Sir Hilary Synnott, who was Britain’s most senior diplomat in Basra, confirmed Davies had told him of his worries. “He was concerned about some of the conditions which he encountered and the possibility that they contravened international norms,” Synnott said last week. “London was informed of these concerns.”
The American-controlled Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) made no initial response, however, and it is not clear why complaints were not made to the American authorities at a higher level.
A Foreign Office spokesman said Davies was among other civil servants who had warned of mistreatment as far back as the summer of last year. “Ministers were kept informed of those concerns and these issues were raised through appropriate channels,” he said.
Ann Clwyd, Tony Blair’s envoy on human rights in Iraq, said she was never informed. “I think officials knew, but politicians did not,” she said.
The scandal continues to reverberate in London and Washington, where new photographs began to circulate on the internet this weekend that appeared to show Iraqi captives being abused as early as May of last year.
The American military said yesterday it had launched a criminal investigation into pictures of Navy Seal special forces sitting on hooded and handcuffed detainees, some of whom appear to be bleeding from beatings. The images — if proved genuine — appear to be of suspects being arrested rather than prisoners in a jail.
The Abu Ghraib scandal had threatened to end the career of Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, but President George W Bush decided last week to allow the 72-year-old to remain in office.
Republicans close to the White House said the president was unwilling to change his military team in the run-up to elections in Iraq. The White House has blamed the Abu Ghraib abuses on a minority of junior soldiers and civilian contractors, some of whom attended pre-trial hearings yesterday at a military court in Fort Hood, Texas. Specialist Charles Graner, the alleged ringleader, is due to appear tomorrow.
From the start of the coalition takeover, British officials were closely involved with the reopening of the jail, which had been one of Saddam Hussein’s most feared prisons.
Bill Irvine, a British former prison governor now attached to the United Nations in Kosovo, was head of the Iraqi prisons department from May to September 2003. Although never involved in its detailed operation, he supervised the jail’s refurbishment until it reopened in late August.
Foreign Office sources say Irvine quickly feared Abu Ghraib was being transformed into an American military camp. “We never imagined the scale of abuse that was going on but we didn’t like what was happening,” said a colleague. “It was deteriorating.”
After Irvine left in September, another British official, Ken Grant, a forensic accountant from the Department of Trade and Industry, was placed in temporary charge of the Iraqi prison department. Although later replaced by an American, he remained at the prison ministry’s headquarters in Baghdad until the end of December.
Grant is said to have been frequently excluded from key meetings by the Americans. He also witnessed the gradual shifting of responsibility towards American civilian contractors, many of them veterans of the US private prison system, who encouraged the use of restraints such as leg irons.
In late August, Major- General Geoffrey Miller, then commander of the US prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was dispatched to Iraq in a drive to find ways of extracting more useful intelligence from prisoners at Abu Ghraib. According to British officials, Americans believed Miller had given authority for Abu Ghraib to be “Gitmo-ised”. The US military calls Guantanamo Bay “Gitmo”.
“The Americans said they had a get-out clause that meant they didn’t have to follow the law,” said one official.
One of the US officials closely involved in the refurbishment of Abu Ghraib and other prisons in Baghdad in summer 2003 was Lane McCotter, the former head of the corrections system in Utah. McCotter has not been accused of involvement or responsibility for Iraqi prisoner abuse, but his methods troubled British officials.
Despite his misgivings, Davies remained until the transfer of power to an interim Iraqi government in June, by which time there was little contact with the American authorities.
He stuck to his task, drafting codes for prison discipline and staff conduct “and at least 15 or so substantial documents” for consideration. He did not receive a single comment from the CPA. “In the end, communications were minimal and I concentrated on keeping our region in order,” he said.