Swans Commentary » swans.com August 15, 2011  



Death of the "Fat Bastard"


by Peter Byrne


Book Review



(Swans - August 15, 2011)  

Good morning ladies and gentlemen. Before we start our first witness, there is one thing I want to say about tomorrow. As I'm sure nearly all of you know, or have remembered, tomorrow is Armistice Day. What I propose to do tomorrow is to take our ten-minute break between five to 11 and five past 11, so that during that time each person can observe Armistice Day in any way they chose. (Chairman of the Baha Mousa Inquiry, November 10, 2009.)

In Iraq, July-August 2003, Stuart Mackenzie, a Territorial Army private, wrote in his diary:

Still [name blacked out] conditioning the Terrorists. They are in clip big time. Finally got back at 13:30. Back to BG Main [Battle Group Main Camp] for 10 pm. The fat bastard who kept taking his hood off and escaping from his plasticuffs got put in another room. He resisted [name blacked out]. He stopped breathing, then we couldn't revive him [blacked out]. What a shame.

Mackenzie's diary, discovered by the police, has only been published in fragments and on line. He was a guard at the temporary detention center, and not only kept a diary but took photographs and sold doctored shots of soldiers urinating on Iraqi civilians. His diary entry needs footnotes:

Conditioning: This was straightforward brutality meant to make prisoners cooperate in the interrogation that would follow. Conditioning techniques included stress positions, hooding, constant noise, denial of sleep and withholding of food and water. Conditioning dated from internment in Northern Ireland. Outlawed by the British government in 1972, it had never been reauthorized and was prohibited by international law.

Terrorists: The Queen's Lancashire Regiment took away ten Iraqi men from the Hotel Haitham, Basra, September 14, 2003. It was claimed that weapons, false papers and suspected bomb-making equipment were found. If true, it would hardly be surprising. Iraqis, especially in troubled times, kept arms for defense against criminals and tribal enemies. None of the seized men proved to belong to the armed insurrection. A witness saw soldiers stuffing money from the hotel safe into their pockets.

In clip big time: On August 14 a British officer died in a bombed ambulance. On August 23 three Royal Military Police had been killed in a drive-by shooting. Before the party of soldiers swept over the Hotel Haitham their officers intimated that the insurgents responsible for the killings would be found there. This was taken as a license for unrestrained violence.

His hood: A hood wasn't an item of clothing but a wiry surfaced sandbag. Hooding a prisoner sometimes broke his nose. At times the detainees had three bags over their heads. The aim was, in officialese, to "disorientate" and make them less of a "danger." But for the victim it felt like asphyxiation and when prolonged, as it was, could drive a man out of his mind. Hooding, though illegal, had become army practice.

The fat bastard: This was Baha Mousa, twenty-six, the hotel receptionist. He may have appeared fat with his clothes torn off and lying in a heap on the detention facility floor. In a photograph he was solid if plump, standing shoulder to shoulder with his kerchiefed wife. He held a toddler; she held an infant. In hindsight the fear in the children's eyes is ominous. The grownups smile like any preoccupied but happy parents. The photo was taken before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq and before the February death of Baha Mousa's wife from cancer at twenty-two.

Baha Mousa, whom the British authorities routinely branded a regime loyalist, had a particular hatred for Saddam Hussein. He blamed the dictator for not providing medical care for his wife's treatable illness. One of his brothers had died after a botched operation. That left two nephews in Baha Mousa's care as well as his own two boys. His father had the same hatred for Saddam Hussein, who had arbitrarily ended his career in the police. Both father and son had been pleased to see the British troops arrive in Basra.

However, Baha Mousa was just another "Ali Baba" for the military, a potential terrorist. Private Mackenzie noted in his diary:

Caught three Ali Babas. Beat the fuck out of them on the back of the Saxon [armored vehicle]. One had a punctured lung and broken ribs and fingers. One had a dislocated shoulder and broken fingers. Out a few times then to Main for conditioning prisoners [blacked out]. All night -- no sleep for them -- about 3 hours for me.

With the other arrested men Baha Mousa was taken to the temporary detention facility in the Group Main Camp. Regulations called for prisoners then to be delivered for interrogation within 14 hours to the Uum Qasr Internment Camp, fifty miles distant. This was to avoid over-zealous conditioning. In fact the ten prisoners stayed two days and were continually beaten. The soldiers kicked, punched, and struck them with pieces of metal and pipe. They were kept hooded and not allowed to sleep. Food and water were insufficient. The men were left in their excrement befouled clothes.

After 36 hours Baha Mousa couldn't breathe beneath the sandbags. With the strength of desperation, he managed to undo his plastic handcuffs and free his face. Corporal Payne, who had been tormenting him, then threw Baha Mousa to the ground and re-cuffed him. But Baha Mousa got his hands loose again. The enraged Payne stomped the prisoner and, another soldier aiding, put the cuffs back on. Then he took Baha Mousa's head between his hands and beat it against the wall till he died. A postmortem listed 93 separate injuries to his body, including a broken nose and fractured ribs.

The death of a prisoner in British custody could be explained away but not completely ignored. The Queen's Lancashires would use the recipe that U.S. forces had perfected in their several occupations of foreign lands: One "bad apple" had somehow got into their bushels of idealistic soldiery. A six-month court martial, ending in April 2007, cleared six soldiers of abusing civilian detainees, noted the disattention of one officer and sentenced the killer of Baha Mousa to a year in jail, dismissing him from the army. Payne was in effect the first convicted British war criminal.

But the government in London was wrong to think that the carpet would remain in place over their deft broom work. Although some compensation had been paid, the lawyers for the nine surviving detainees of the Hotel Haitham wouldn't let Whitehall forget what their troops were doing in Iraq. The Human Rights Act applied to them too and called for an independent inquiry whenever agents of the state were involved in abuses. This was undertaken in July 2009 by Sir William Gage. His complete report will be published in September 2011. However, the testimony has already been made available.

Richard Norton-Taylor has edited that testimony into what has come to be called a verbatim or tribunal play, based on transcripts of inquiries. (Tactical Questioning, Scenes from the Baha Mousa Inquiry, 2011, London, Oberon Books, 90 pages. The program of the performance is also full of pertinent information.) Directed by Nicolas Kent, the play premiered at London's Tricycle Theatre on June 2, 2011. It consists of eight interviews from 2009-10 re-enacted on stage. Without entering into a detailed review, we can say that the performance, though the editor added no words of his own, is full of creative touches. This shouldn't surprise. A courtroom (here an inquiry room) is the civic institution we possess most like a theatre. A penetrating question and an evasive reply can astound us by the depths revealed. Anyone who formulates or answers a question becomes a character in an overarching drama.

The recent appearance of this style of theatre says much about our times. Playwright David Hare holds that, "It does what journalism fails to do." Robin Soans, another playwright, blames inadequate reporting but goes farther:

Only in the arts is the study of the human condition considered more important than ambition or money, so it is left to artists to ask the relevant questions.

Tactical Questioning begins with a detainee confirming the important fact that many soldiers beat him, not simply one or two, and that it would have been hard for anyone in the camp not to know what was going on. He also experienced near suffocation from the triple layer of bags that covered his head for most of the time he spent in the facility. He was given water, but never enough. All the time, the soldiers screamed at him in English of which he understood not a word. He finally collapsed under the blows.

It would be interesting to know what the Iraqi civilian detainees thought about during that ten minute pause of silence on Armistice Day marking the end of a war between Europeans in 1918. It may have been the most lethal war in history but there was no state torture involved. Torture would be reserved for the non-European world.

The detainees would make clear the lasting effect of torture on them. Six years after the event one of them said: "It was as if the whole thing had happened today." As time passed he found that he was becoming violent with his family. Another said: "The state they put us in couldn't be borne for more than seconds. One would have loved to die because that would have been better." A third detainee said, "The soldiers behaved like animals. I cannot bear to think how they treated fellow human beings like us."

But how it was possible comes out in the testimony of Private Aaron Cooper. He was asked why, on entering the room where the detainees were being beaten, he immediately joined in. He said it was out of anger and frustration over the British men killed. "I don't know. I just did what I felt inside." Cooper told how Lieutenant Craig Rodgers, who was in charge, reacted to Baha Mousa's death by placing the blame entirely on Payne, the man who had last laid hands on the victim. Rodgers insisted on silence about the savagery that had overrun the detention facility.

Corporal Adrian Redfearn struck a pose of a detached observer of what happened. At one point, shocked at the state of the detainees, he called for medics. They never arrived. When on guard duty he let the prisoners relax their stress positions, which enraged Payne. "I was intimidated and threatened by him," said Redfearn. Why didn't he report the matter? "As far as I was aware, sir, everybody in higher authority already knew what was going on, sir. There was no one in that camp, sir, as far as I was aware, that I could have told. Even the padre had been in there. If you can't turn to the padre, who can you turn to, sir?"

Lieutenant Rodgers had been seen throwing punches at the detainees. He not only denied it but that any violence at all had been used at the facility. Before coming to Iraq at 26 he had not been trained in the handling of civilian detainees. He said that hooding, stress positions and the other prohibited conditioning techniques were British forces policy. It wasn't true, he said, that he had implemented a plan to stop larger repercussions by identifying the bully Payne as the sole "bad apple."

The question put to Corporal Donald Payne could well have been asked of Lieutenant Rodgers. "You lied about almost everything, didn't you?" Rodgers would have lied again and answered, "No." Payne, at this point, having been sentenced in the court martial, answered, "Yes." He was accepting the role of fall-guy for the sake of that mere one-year sentence for killing a prisoner. Payne was resigned or just tired of lying. When asked why he kicked and punched detainees, he answered, "No reason." At the same time he smoldered. Relating his version of events to his commanding officer, he had been told that the story had better hold up or else their careers were in jeopardy. The questioner asked Payne what he thought the officer meant. Payne answered: "That it was either me or him."

As the witnesses rose in the military hierarchy, so did arrogance and obfuscation. Major Michael Peebles was a Battle Group Internment Review Officer. It was his decision whether detained men should be released or sent on for more permanent detention. He decided to send the Hotel Haitham men on. Why on initiating conditioning had he told his soldiers that the detainees were involved in the deaths of the British policemen?Because the detainees were "a potential threat," he answered, drawing attention to the elastic meaning the word "potential" had taken on since 2001. Apart from "our" military, who wasn't a potential threat? Some of the hotel detainees were old men but one was a young boy. Lieutenant Rodgers had stood him in front of an open can of gasoline, poured water that he said was gasoline over his head, and lit a match in his face. Peebles called this "a naughty schoolboy routine." In order to increase the boy's cooperation, he himself placed him next to scalding generator that made a deafening racket and splashed boiling water.

Colonel Nicholas Mercer was legal advisor to the whole chain of command. On the 28 of March 2003 he visited the Uum Qasr prisoner of war camp. He saw two lines of prisoners kneeling in the sand under the murderous sun. They were hooded with their hands fastened behind their backs in a classic stress position. When Mercer pointed out that it was a clear violation of the Geneva Convention, he was told that the practice conformed to British Army doctrine. In an ensuing meeting with the Red Cross, his superiors told Mercer was to keep quiet. That the hooding was necessary for "security reasons," he found preposterous. It was torture, pure and simple.

In a parliamentary system responsibility resides at the top. But so does every imaginable escape hatch from responsibility. As minister of state at the Ministry of Defense Adam Ingram had been responsible for the armed forces. Questioner: "Were you horrified to learn that prisoners were being kept hooded for 24 hours in 36?" Ingram: "Horrified? Strong word. It does say albeit not continually. I wouldn't have put a value judgment on it until I had established best information and ground truth on this." "Ground truth" was the Minister's favorite phrase. For him it somehow differed from ordinary truth.

If ever the smoke clears from Western imperial wars in the Middle East, our descendants may wish to know about the spirit of the epoch. With luck they will come across Taylor-Norton's Tactical Questioning, Scenes from the Baha Mousa Inquiry. But let's hope they will also be able to read Stuart Mackenzie's diary. He is one of us, a man of his place and his time:

Found 3 Ali Babas at WPT7 [Basra location]. Beat them up with sticks and filmed. Good day, so far.


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Published August 15, 2011