The Five Techniques
- BuyA Very British Killing: The Death of Baha Mousa by A.T. Williams
Cape, 298 pp, £16.99, October 2012, ISBN 978 0 224 09688 1
In a case recently heard in the High Court the lead applicant, an Iraqi arrested by British forces based in Basra on 16 November 2006, offered a statement that was summarised as follows:
[The soldiers who arrested him] beat him severely, slammed him against a wall and forced him into a stress position in which they stood on his knees and back. His 11-month-old son’s arm was stamped on and broken, and his father had to urinate on himself. The soldiers removed business documents, computers, mobile telephones, licensed guns and 40 million Iraqi dinars … At the [Brigade Processing Facility] the Claimant was initially hooded and earmuffed, then goggled. He was interrogated aggressively, struck with a stick and threatened with Guantánamo. In between sessions he was forced into a stress position in the cold for 30 hours and stoned and beaten. He was twice taken to medics, but not to the toilet, so he urinated on himself … [On arrival at a second detention facility] he was goggled and earmuffed, forced to undress in public and examined by a medic while naked. A female saw him nude. He spent 36 days in solitary confinement in a tiny freezing cell with restricted bedding, food and water. Soldiers beat him, prevented him sleeping by banging his door and shouting insults, restricted his privacy in toileting and showering and twice had sexual intercourse in front of him. Pornographic movies were played loudly and pornographic magazines left in sight. Soldiers exposed themselves, groped each other and masturbated in front of him … Humiliations continued at Camp B with poor conditions, beatings, food deprivation, threats, intimate searches and intimidation with dogs … He was released in November 2007 having had no explanation for his detention. His property was never returned.
This account is just one of 135 that the High Court has been invited to consider. Other complainants assert that they were gratuitously tasered and bayonetted by British troops; one alleges that his elderly mother was driven away in an army vehicle and later found dumped on the street in a body bag; another that his father was so badly beaten up he lost an eye. Several describe being made to simulate oral and anal intercourse, and some say they were ejaculated on or sprayed with urine. At least 247 identified individuals are said by the complainants’ lawyers to have been killed during poorly recorded encounters with British patrols and prison guards. That figure excludes the subjects of another investigation that convened in March to look into claims that more than twenty Iraqis were tortured, mutilated or summarily executed following a 2004 firefight known as the Battle of Danny Boy. The armed forces, for their part, have consistently refused to estimate how many people they may have unjustly killed, injured or mistreated during their six-year occupation of Iraq.
An unproved war crime is just an allegation to the people it doesn’t touch, and the conventional way of testing serious allegations is to hold a trial. A.T. Williams’s A Very British Killing is concerned with one such prosecution. The story at its centre began on a Sunday morning in September 2003, as British troops conducted a swoop on a Basra hotel. Six months on from the US-led invasion, with coalition forces quickly losing any tenuous claim they might have had on Iraqi hearts and minds, members of the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment arrested ten men they suspected of aiding the insurgency. The soldiers were jumpy – nearly a dozen of their compatriots had recently been killed, six of them beaten to death by a crowd at Basra police station – and the prisoners were picked up in the vicinity of two concealed hand grenades, a sub-machine gun and sniper goggles. But the weapons belonged to persons unknown, and any malice on the part of the Iraqis was soon eclipsed by the criminal conduct of their captors.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.