Revealed: An Iraqi Man’s Brutal Mistreatment By British Soldiers
On the night of 11 February 2007, 53-year-old Abd Ali Hameed Ali Al-Waheed was staying at the house of his brother-in-law, Ali Jaleel, in Basra, southern Iraq. Jaleel was suspected by the British Army of involvement in insurgent activities, and so that night, British soldiers from the Yorkshire Regiment raided his home with the intention of detaining him. Jaleel was out of the house at the time, but the soldiers discovered a partly assembled IED and large quantities of explosives in the house. Upon making this discovery, the soldiers bound Al-Waheed’s wrists, brought him outside of the house, fitted him with blacked-out goggles and ear defenders, and pushed him into the back of a military vehicle. That is when his nightmare began.
In court proceedings that took place between 2016 and 2017 in the England and Wales High Court, wherein Al-Waheed sued Britain’s Ministry Of Defence [MOD] for the mistreatment that he suffered while in British military custody, he gave evidence that as soon as the vehicle began to move, the soldiers started beating him violently and that this continued throughout the journey. He stated that the soldiers beat him with the butts of their rifles and kicked him hard with their boots, and that at some point during the journey, he was punched in the face. He also stated that a soldier grabbed one of his fingers and pulled it back so hard that he thought it would break. Justice Leggatt, who presided over this case, concluded the following: “Considering the evidence as a whole, I find that the injuries to Mr Al-Waheed’s head, upper body and right hand recorded in his medical notes were deliberately inflicted by the soldiers who traveled with him to the Basra Airport base and that during that journey Mr Al-Waheed was systematically beaten with one or more implements (probably rifle butts) and was punched in the face”. Justice Leggatt thus made the following ruling: “The mistreatment to which Mr Al-Waheed was subjected constituted an unlawful assault. On the findings I have made, it was also inhuman treatment which violated article 3 of the European Convention [which prohibits “inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”]”.
Al-Waheed was also subjected to sensory deprivation during the car journey and when he was subsequently detained at Basra Airport before being taken to the Shaibah detention facility, as he was deprived of his sight and hearing by the blacked-out goggles and ear defenders that he was forced to wear. During the court proceedings, Justice Leggatt noted the following: “The MOD did not call any witness or rely on any evidence to suggest that forcing Mr Al-Waheed to wear blacked out goggles and ear defenders throughout the journey to Basra Airport and while at the Basra Airport base was necessary in order to maintain “operational security”. The back of a Snatch Land Rover did not have windows. Moreover, even if he could have seen out, there is no suggestion that the convoy passed anything on the way to the airport which it was necessary to prevent Mr Al-Waheed from seeing. The fact that the British army was based at Basra Airport was common knowledge. No doubt there were areas of the BPF which were militarily sensitive. But there is no evidence that any such areas were visible from the location where detainees were held. Furthermore, I cannot think of any reason of “operational security” which could possibly be said to justify depriving detainees of hearing.
Certainly, no justification for it was offered at the trial. On this basis, Justice Leggatt came to the following conclusion:
“I am driven to conclude that the reason why the practice was adopted was that suggested by the Provost Martial (Army) in his reports written at the time: namely, that it was done as a form of deliberate ‘conditioning’, in order to maximise vulnerability and the ‘shock of capture’. It also seems to me that a practice which prevented detainees who were already defenceless from being able to see (or hear) exactly what was being done to them or by whom was not only calculated to make the detainees feel more vulnerable but also – by dehumanising them and giving their captors a cloak of invisibility – to increase the risk of physical abuse”. Justice Leggatt thus ruled that “depriving Mr Al-Waheed of vision and hearing for long periods between the time of his arrest and his arrival at the Shaibah detention facility some 12 hours later for improper reasons was a form of degrading treatment. It was also an assault because it involved bodily interference without his consent or any lawful excuse”.
Al-Waheed gave evidence in court that when he arrived at Basra Airport, he was subjected to an aggressive and humiliating interrogation. He testified that the British military officer who conducted the interrogation stood very close to his face and would shout at him and spit on him, and that an interpreter who spoke in a Lebanese accent stood behind him and would shout whenever the officer shouted. The following text is from his witness statement: “The officer spoke very loudly and his language was so disgusting that I cannot bear to repeat what he said. He cursed me, and insulted my sisters, my mother and my wife, and he insulted my honour and my dignity when he said those things”. Justice Leggatt noted that Al- Waheed’s “account of how the questioning was conducted was not challenged in cross-examination and is consistent with descriptions of the “harsh” interrogation technique which was permitted by the MOD at the time”. Justice Leggatt cited the report of the inquiry into the murder of Baha Mousa, an Iraqi civilian who was beaten to death by British soldiers in Basra in 2003, which found: “The teaching of the ‘harsh’ permitted insults not just of the performance of the captured prisoner but personal and abusive insults including racist and homophobic language. The ‘harsh’ was designed to show anger on the part of the questioner. It ran the risk of being a form of intimidation to coerce answers from prisoners. It involved forms of threats which, while in some senses indirect, were designed to instil in prisoners a fear of what might happen to them, including physically”.
Justice Leggatt also cited the following judgement made by Justice Collins in Hussein v Secretary of State for Defence , wherein another Iraqi national named Hussein sued the MOD for similar abuse that he suffered while in British military custody in Basra in 2007: “There can be no doubt that the practices carried out under the guidelines then in place were unacceptable. The harsh technique
included the following elements which could be deployed as the questioner considered necessary. The shouting could be as loud as possible. There could be what was described as uncontrolled fury, shouting with cold menace and then developing, the questioner’s voice and actions showing psychotic tendencies, and there could be personal abuse. Other techniques were described as cynical derision and malicious humiliation, involving personal attacks on the detainee’s physical and mental attitudes and capabilities. He could be taunted and goaded as an attack on his pride and ego and to make him feel insecure. Finally, he could be confused by high speed questioning, interrupting his answers, perhaps misquoting his reply”. Justice Leggatt also noted that “no attempt was made to contradict the allegation that the “harsh” interrogation technique was used” against Al-Waheed. He concluded: “I find it probable that Mr Al-Waheed was subjected to “harsh” tactical questioning at Basra Airport which involved deliberately insulting and abusing him”, and ruled that “the use of the harsh approach when conducting tactical questioning amounted to degrading treatment, which violated article 3 of the European Convention”.
A British soldier stands on top of a terminal at Basra Airport, 2 May 2003 (Graeme Robertson / Getty Images).
On the afternoon of 12 February 2007, approximately 12 hours after Al-Waheed was first captured, he was taken from Basra Airport to the Shaibah detention facility, officially known as the Divisional Temporary Detention Facility, which was located at the Shaibah Logistics Base, 13 miles from Basra. Upon his arrival, he was subject to a routine medical examination by Dr Ross Moy, the British medical officer at the facility. Dr Moy’s practice was to ask the detainee to remove their clothing apart from their underwear, so that they could be subject to a physical inspection. When
Dr Moy was thus examining Al-Waheed, he noted “extensive linear bruising over shoulders and upper arms”, which was set out in a pattern of lines that he believed could have been inflicted with an implement. He also noted “abrasions” on the crown of Al-Waheed’s head and above his left eye. Blood was also found in a urine sample from Al-Waheed that was taken during the examination, which Dr Moy observed could have been caused by injury to the kidneys. Shortly after midnight that night (at 00:05 on 13 February 2007), Al-Waheed was seen by a medical orderly because of a complaint that he had made about the middle finger on his right hand being swollen and painful, which was subsequently treated with strapping and painkillers. Dr Moy had concerns that Al-Waheed may have been beaten by the British soldiers who detained him – concerns that turned out to be well-founded, as Justice Leggatt concluded that he had in fact been beaten during the car journey to Basra Airport. On 13 February 2007, Dr Moy telephoned Major Hazelton, the senior officer in the Royal Military Police (RMP) at Basra, to speak with him about these concerns. He followed up this telephone call with an email:
“As discussed earlier this evening, I have concerns regarding the handling of Internee 1057 [Al-Waheed]. He has arrived at the DTDF [Divisional Temporary Detention Facility] with extensive bruising over his upper back and arms. This bruising is linear, and suggestive of being struck repeatedly with an implement. I suggest that it is unlikely these injuries were sustained during a struggle, he appears to have been deliberately beaten. On arrival at the DTDF, I estimate that the bruising was older than six hours, but less than three days. I can’t be any more exact than that, I’m not a specialist in forensics. I think this needs to be investigated, and I suspect you’re the man to do it”.
While undergoing interrogations first at Basra Airport and then at the Shaibah detention facility between 12 February 2007 and 13 February 2007, Al-Waheed was subjected to sleep deprivation by his British military captors. Justice Leggatt explained the circumstances within which this occurred: “When Mr Al-Waheed arrived at Shaibah he had had no sleep the previous night and had already undergone tactical questioning in the early hours of that morning. When he was first interrogated at 14.38 on 12 February 2007, he must have been awake for at least the previous 30 hours. During the following 30 hours he was interrogated ten times, including regularly throughout the night. Between 19.53 on 12 February and 05.07 on 13 February he was interrogated six times, with the longest break between sessions being less than two hours”. Justice Leggatt noted that in court, “the MOD did not adduce any evidence to justify the approach used”. Thus, he made the following ruling: “I conclude that during the first day and a half of his detention Mr Al-Waheed was deliberately deprived of sleep to an extent which was unacceptable and was calculated to cause, and did in fact cause, undue suffering. I find that this treatment also violated article 3”.
On the afternoon of 14 February 2007, Al-Waheed was interviewed by members of the RMP, due to the concerns that had been raised with them by Dr Moy. During
this interview, Al-Waheed told the RMP that he had not been mistreated during his detention. The MOD tried to use this as a defence in court. However, Al-Waheed gave evidence in court that the reason that he had did not complain to the RMP about his mistreatment is that he was worried that there would be repercussions for him from the soldiers who were still detaining him. Justice Leggatt came to the following conclusion: “I do, however, find credible Mr Al-Waheed’s evidence that he decided not to complain about his treatment to the RMP because he was fearful about the consequences and worried that it might lead to him being detained for longer. I bear in mind that, when Mr Al-Waheed was interviewed on the afternoon of 14 February 2007, less than three days had elapsed since his arrest… the circumstances of his arrest and initial detention must have been traumatic. Since his arrest, he had also been repeatedly interrogated by British soldiers and had hardly any sleep. After being brought to Basra Airport, he was subjected to “tactical questioning”… between 0426 and 0630 that morning. Then, following his arrival at the Shaibah detention facility in the afternoon of 12 February, he had been interrogated 11 more times. This included interrogations at intervals throughout the night of 12/13 February. On every occasion when he had been taken from one place to another – including, I infer, when he was taken to be interviewed by the RMP – he was subjected to sensory deprivation. To put it at its lowest, these were not propitious circumstances in which to ask Mr Al-Waheed whether he had any complaint to make that he had been ill-treated by his captors and invite him to make a statement giving details of any such complaint. Nor is it necessary to have studied guidance on the difficulties of interviewing vulnerable and intimidated witnesses to appreciate that a prisoner in Mr Al-Waheed’s position is likely to have been extremely wary about making allegations to British soldiers – whatever assurances the RMP gave him of their independence – about how other British soldiers had recently ill-treated him”.
On 22 February 2007, the Divisional Internment Review Committee (DIRC), which was responsible for reviewing the grounds for internment of people held at the Shaibah detention facility, voted by a majority to release Al-Waheed. Justice Leggatt noted that “Mr Al-Waheed should, in consequence, have been released the following day”. Nonetheless, Al-Waheed was kept in detention at the facility until 28 March 2007, because of “a decision [that] was taken by the DIRC at an ad hoc meeting on 24 February 2007 to continue Mr Al-Waheed’s internment”. Justice Leggatt concluded the following with regards to this subsequent decision to keep Al-Waheed in detention: “I do not consider that there was a reasonable basis for that decision. There had been no relevant change of circumstances since the decision to release Mr Al-Waheed was made two days earlier. In particular, no new information had come to light in the meantime which had not been available to the committee on 22 February 2007”. According to Justice Leggatt, the reason that the DIRC decided to keep Al-Waheed in detention was “a concern of the senior legal officer that the committee may have been misled when it was told that it was now clear that Mr Al-Waheed was not seen in the same room as the IED”. This refers to an initial allegation against Al-Waheed that he was in the same room as the IED that
was discovered in his brother-in-law’s house when the soldiers detained him – an allegation that was subsequently disproven, as was noted by the DIRC at the meeting that they conducted on 22 February 2007 when they voted to release him. As Justice Leggatt observed, “the committee had not been misled. The only occasion on which the committee was misled was at the first review meeting on 13 February 2007, when it had falsely been told that Mr Al-Waheed was found “messing about” with the IED. By the time of the 22 February meeting, it had been established that this report was untrue. Nor did any further evidence emerge subsequently to suggest that Mr Al-Waheed posed a threat to security”. Thus, Justice Leggatt made the following ruling: “I conclude that there were no imperative reasons of security which required Mr Al-Waheed to be kept in detention from 23 February until 28 March 2007. His detention during that period therefore lacked any lawful basis and was contrary to article 5(1) [which maintains that “No one shall be deprived of his liberty” except for in cases involving “the lawful detention of a person after conviction by a competent court”]”.
Britain’s then Prime Minister Tony Blair meets with British soldiers at the Shaibah Logistics Base, 22 December 2005 (File Photo).
In conclusion, Al-Waheed was subjected to five separate human rights violations by his British military captors. Four of these violated article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and one of them violated article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Justice Leggatt set them out as follows:
“In summary, I have found that Mr Al-Waheed was subjected to inhuman and/or degrading treatment which violated article 3 of the Convention in the following respects:
- While he was being transported to the Basra Airport base following his arrest, he was repeatedly beaten on the upper back and arms by British soldiers (probably with rifle butts). He was also punched in the face and sustained a painful finger injury.
- From shortly after his arrest at around 0030 until his arrival at the Shaibah detention facility at around 1300 on 12 February 2007 (except while being photographed, medically examined and questioned at the Basra Airport base) he was completely deprived of sight and hearing by being made to wear blacked out goggles and ear defenders. This practice continued during the first 13 days of his detention whenever Mr Al-Waheed was taken out of his cell.
- At the Basra Airport base he was subjected to tactical questioning using the “harsh” interrogation approach which involved a deliberate attempt to humiliate the detainee by shouting insults and personal abuse at him.
- During the first day and a half of his detention he was deliberately deprived of sleep for the purpose of interrogation.
I have also concluded that Mr Al-Waheed’s arrest and initial period of detention were lawful, but that his continued detention after the review committee had voted to release him on 22 February 2007 until his actual release on 28 March 2007 violated article 5 of the Convention and also gave rise to a claim against the MOD in tort”.
Justice Leggatt concluded this case as follows:
“In summary, Mr Al-Waheed is awarded damages under the Human Rights Act for:
- inhuman and degrading treatment consisting in the beating to which he was subjected following his arrest, in a sum of £15,000;
- further inhuman and degrading treatment consisting in “harsh” interrogation, sleep deprivation and sensory deprivation, in a total sum of £15,000; and
- his unlawful detention for 33 days in a sum of £3,300”.
The MOD agreed to pay these damages to Al-Waheed.
This case is far from unusual. The International Criminal Court (ICC) published a report on British war crimes in Iraq on 9 December 2020, which noted “the wider body of findings by other public authorities and institutions in the UK that hundreds of Iraqi detainees were subjected to conditions of detention and practices which amounted to inhuman or degrading treatment”. The British Government has not provided an exact figure for how much money has been spent settling claims from Iraqis who sued the MOD for human rights violations that they suffered while in British military custody, and it has argued that to do so would take weeks of work for civil servants, which itself gives an idea of the scale of the payouts.
However, in 2017, the MOD revealed that it had paid £19.8m in 326 cases brought before British courts. In a further 1,145 cases, British military officers in Iraq paid out £2.1m between 2003 and 2009. Moreover, the violations described in this piece are not the most severe ones that British soldiers were found to have committed in Iraq; the ICC report confirms that there were cases in 2003 wherein Iraqis were sexually assaulted, raped and murdered by their British military captors. These facts ought to be kept in mind when one is evaluating the human rights impact of Britain’s military presence in Iraq, especially given that that presence is set to potentially increase this year with the expansion of NATO’s mission in the country.
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