Sunday, November 7, 2010

Saudi sets start of hajj pilgrimage for November 15

Officials estimate a total of about two million will take part in this year's hajj
RIYADH (Agencies)
The annual hajj pilgrimage to Mecca will begin on November 15 after Saudi authorities on Saturday set November 16 for the Eid al-Adha holy day and festival, following the sighting of the crescent moon.
The kingdom's official SPA news agency says the court confirmed the sighting of the new moon Saturday. According to the lunar calendar, hajj begins nine days into the 12th month of the year - making the start Nov. 15 this year in the Gregorian calendar.
The ruling means the annual hajj will now start on November 15.
More than 1.5 million Muslims from all over the world have already converged on the holy cities of Mecca and Medina in western Saudi Arabia for the hajj, the world's largest annual gathering.
Officials estimate a total of about two million will take part in this year's hajj.
Eid al-Adha, which commemorates biblical patriarch Ibrahim's (or Abraham's) acceptance of God's command to sacrifice his son Ismail (or Ishmael), always falls on the 10th of Dhul al-Hijja on the Islamic calendar.
As Ibrahim was allowed to sacrifice a ram instead, Muslim families mark the day by ritually sacrificing sheep, goats, cows and other livestock, the meat of which is also shared with the needy.

Woolas facing new vote for Islamic extremism smears

By Marcus Dysch and Jennifer Lipman
A Labour MP who claimed his Liberal Democrat opponent was involved with Islamic extremists is facing a by-election after a judge found that he knowingly made false accusations.
During the 2010 campaign, shadow immigration minister Phil Woolas, fighting for reelection to his Oldham East seat, accused his opponent of wooing extremist Muslims.
Mr Woolas won the seat with 103 more votes than Elwyn Watkins for the Liberal Democrats.
But a special election court has now ruled that the MP breached election regulations by making false claims and there must now be another poll.
Mr Woolas said he will now seek a judicial review, but if he is unsuccessful he will be barred from parliament for three years.
He will also have to step down from the Labour frontbench while the matter is settled.
One email sent around Mr Woolas' campaign staff before the election contained a comment about getting "the white folk angry" in order to secure a victory.
An election result has not been challenged in this way for 99 years.
Ahead of May's election, the candidates clashed over arms sales to Israel. Mr Woolas wrote to Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg questioning his party's views on the matter after Mr Watkins wrote to Muslim supporters condemning Israel's "disproportionate use of force" during the Gaza conflict.
Mr Woolas noted that his opponent worked as an adviser to Sheikh Abdullah Alhamrani, co-owner of one of Saudi Arabia's largest companies.
At the time, Mr Watkins told the JC: "Woolas is trying to portray this as me being antisemitic. I'm not antisemitic at all. He has taken something and tried to make it something it's not."
He said his comments were "supported by quite a few million people. It's not an anti-Israel thing. I would not sell rockets to Hamas either. I was following the party line. I would equally condemn Hamas, Hizbollah or whoever targets civilians."

Barack Obama India trip: Pervez Musharraf disappointed Barack Obama not in Pakistan

Pakistan's former president Pervez Musharraf on Friday voiced disappointment that US President Barack Obama was not stopping in his country on the sidelines of his maiden visit to India.
Pervez Musharraf also criticised Barack Obama for not speaking about Kashmir "I would take it as a disappointment, yes, indeed," Mr Musharraf, a military leader who stepped down in 2008, told MSNBC television.
Mr Musharraf also criticised Mr Obama for not speaking about Kashmir, the Himalayan region disputed between Pakistan and India, saying: "It doesn't resonate well with the people of Pakistan."
"They take it that the United States or the president of the United States is not that concerned about Pakistan's own sensitivities and interests," he said.
Mr Obama was en route on Friday for Mumbai and New Delhi on a trip aimed at convincing India that he wants to push ahead relations between the world's two largest democracies after an early focus on Pakistan and China.
For many US policy-makers, it would be unthinkable for Mr Obama to visit Pakistan on the sidelines of the long-promoted trip as Mr Obama is hoping to show India that he sees it as a global power and not simply as a regional player.
But Mr Obama has a delicate balancing act as he has also tried to convince Pakistan that he sees the country as more than simply a conduit into Afghanistan for war operations.
Ahead of the India trip, Mr Obama invited Mr Musharraf's civilian successor, President Asif Ali Zardari, for a future visit to Washington and announced that he would travel to Pakistan next year.
The United States has tried to dent Pakistan's rampant anti-Americanism by last year approving a 7.5 billion-dollar aid package aimed at building schools, infrastructure and democratic institutions.
Last month, the Obama administration also proposed an additional two billion dollars for Pakistan in military assistance, despite misgivings in India.

US criticized for rights violations

The Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council called on the White House to 'investigate allegations of torture in US detention centers abroad.'The US has faced much criticism at the UN top human rights assembly over allegations of torture and delays in the closure of Guantanamo Bay Detention Center.
The Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council called on the White House to investigate allegations of torture in US detention centers abroad.
The ambassadors of 47 member-states urged the swift closure of US detention centers in Guantanamo in Cuba and Bagram airbase in Afghanistan.
European countries including Britain, as well as Australia, recommended a moratorium or abolition of the death penalty
France urged President Barack Obama to "honor his promise" in 2009 to close Guantanamo where a total of 172 of the 242 detainees, from when Obama took office in 2008, are kept. France insist on the need for help from Congress, the courts and US allies willing to host ex-detainees.
Cuban ambassador Rodolfo Reyes Rodriguez called on the US to "halt war crimes and the killing of civilians." Venezuela's German Mundarain Hernandez recommended that Washington "put to trial those responsible for victims of torture."
The Washington Post reported on Thursday that former US president George W. Bush wrote in his new memoir that he personally gave the go-ahead for CIA officers to waterboard alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
The 36-member US delegation tried to downplay the human rights violations committed by Washington, but recognized that the US record was "not perfect."
"While there were some politically-motivated conversations, overall the conversation was constructive dialogue on international human rights," delegation chief and assistant secretary at the US State Department, Esther Brimmer told reporters afterwards.
Although no action is taken in the four-yearly "Universal Periodic Review" it exposes governments to examination by their peers and the UN. The US had refused to join the UN council under the Bush administration.

A Plan B for Obama

A stagnant economy. Declining American influence. Dictators on the march abroad. And a more Republican Congress coming soon. Barack Obama is in big trouble. But it's never too late. Foreign Policy has a plan, 14 in fact, for how the president can find his mojo again.
Nearly two years ago, Obama swept into office promising to defeat terrorism, withdraw "responsibly" from Iraq, make peace in Afghanistan, forge "greater cooperation and understanding between nations," pursue a world without nuclear weapons, and "roll back the specter of a warming planet." And that was just one paragraph of his inaugural address.
"Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions -- who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans," the new U.S. president declared. "Their memories are short."
If Obama's optimism wasn't immediately tempered by his predecessor's daunting legacy -- two inconclusive wars, an economy in free fall, soaring deficits -- it soon became evident that his vision might have exceeded his grasp.
Twenty-two months later, Obama has notched a few significant achievements, and he remains popular around the world. But he faces rising discontent at home and a much less supportive Congress after midterm elections as economists warn ominously of a "double-dip" recession. Progress on issues ranging from climate change to Middle East peace to Iranian nukes has been scant -- and it's hard to find an autocrat who has unclenched his fist.
In other words, it's time for a fresh approach. Take it from a president who knows a thing or two about missteps: "If you live long enough, you'll make mistakes," wrote Bill Clinton. "It's how you handle adversity, not how it affects you. The main thing is never quit, never quit, never quit." So read on for Foreign Policy's Presidential Plan B: 10 things Obama should do now, so that the next two years don't go to waste. From a politically savvy idea for raising taxes -- really! -- to a serious antidote for our oil addiction to unorthodox new ways to speak to Muslims around the world, here's how the president can get back on track.

EU ministers to scrap visas for Bosnia and Albania - grudgingly

Brussels - European Union interior ministers are expected to agree next week to scrap visa requirements for Bosnian and Albanian citizens, but only grudgingly, officials said on Friday.
France and the Netherlands were the countries singled out by several diplomats as having the strongest reservations over the move.
'We are not satisfied with the procedure as a whole,' a diplomat from the sceptic group said, arguing that the European Commission had been too rash in judging that the two countries have met EU standards on border controls.
'We are looking at the intentions more than at the results,' he added.
Concerns have been fueled by a sudden influx of asylum seekers from Serbia and Macedonia after they - together with Montenegro - were granted free access to the EU's border-free Schengen area last December.
Ministers - due to decide by majority voting - were nevertheless expected to give a positive opinion on Bosnia and Albania, to be implemented as from the end of the year. The European Parliament already approved the move last month.
However, in a bid to address some member states' concerns, the decision will be accompanied by a written pledge from the European Commission to keep a close eye on migration flows from all Western Balkan countries.
Officials say there is growing unease among interior ministers about the EU using migration policy as a tool to extend its soft power, with little consideration over the practical repercussions on law and order.
'Visas have a tendency to become diplomatic gifts,' one diplomat said, stressing that recent commission proposals to start visa talks with Moldova have been successfully watered down by EU governments.
Diplomats also warned that growing hostility towards loosening border controls in some of the EU's biggest members does not bode well for Romania and Bulgaria's bid to join the Schengen area in March.
The border-free zone currently encompasses all EU states except Britain, Ireland, Romania and Bulgaria, plus Switzerland, Norway and Iceland.

Cherie Blair defends Muslim women after half-sister turns to Islam

Martin Bentham, Home Affairs Editor
Cherie Blair has defended Muslim women who wear a veil and insisted that it is wrong to see them as a threat - weeks after her half-sister announced her conversion to the religion.
The former Prime Minister's wife also claimed that it was "not true" that women who covered up were oppressed and "incapable" of thinking for themselves. Her comments, in an interview with a Spanish newspaper, follow Lauren Booth's claims that the religion has given her "a new sense of respect".
Mrs Blair has previously claimed that full-face veils could prevent women from expressing their personality, but today struck a more positive tone.
"We use the appearance of women as a metaphor of our fear of a supposed Islamic threat," she told the El Pais newspaper. "There are thousands of Muslims in Europe who participate in our way of life and intend continuing to do so and if they want to dress in a certain way because of their beliefs, we shouldn't feel threatened. It's important to fight against certain stereotypes that affect above all Muslim women. We tend to believe they're oppressed, insecure and incapable of thinking for themselves and that is not true.
"One of the things I try to do is help to explain that Islam is an open religion in which women have influence, whether they hide their hair or not." Asked about Miss Booth's conversion, she replied: "It's her choice."
Mrs Blair's comments come amid increasing debate about the veiling of women and follow France's decision to ban full-face veils in public.

Air cargo scare as Greek anarchists post bombs to European leaders

Germany demanded EU take emergency action on Wednesday to secure air freight after parcel bombs were sent from Greece to Angela Merkel and other European targets.
by Bruno Waterfield and Nick Squires
Security services in Greece, Italy and Germany were investigating the co-ordinated campaign, which caused a continent-wide alert.
Mrs Merkel told a German newspaper that the EU needed to agree common rules on air cargo security, implying that freight-checking procedures were not up to the job of intercepting bombs.
"We have a global patchwork of security rules for air freight," she said.
EU officials told The Daily Telegraph that, while governments were responsible for passenger security, freight checks were carried out by companies with "trusted supplier" status.
"The interior ministers might want to look at the rules which currently allow accredited air freight and postal courier companies to do their own security checks," an official said. "It is difficult to detect devices in bulk cargo but if the feeling is that the bombs got through because checks were not tight enough then the rules will be looked at."
Police and intelligence services were put on high alert after booby-trapped packages were sent to Mrs Merkel, Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's prime minister, and foreign embassies in Athens.
The bombs were linked to a radical Greek anarchist group known as the Conspiracy in the Cells of Fire. It has claimed responsibility for several attacks against the state over the past year, including ones on the parliament building in Athens, a police detention centre, and a government building in the northern city of Thessaloniki.
The explosives in the device intercepted in Italy ignited when examined by bomb experts but did not cause any injuries.
An Italian investigation was examining a link between Greek extremists and Italian militant groups.
George Papandreou, the Greek prime minister, said the government would be "unyielding" in hunting for the bombers, whom he accused of trying to sabotage Greece's attempts to pull back from the brink of economic disaster.
"Democracies cannot be terrorised," he said. "These irresponsible and mindless acts were intended to harm the Greek people's huge effort to set the country to rights, to set the economy on its feet and for the country to regain its credibility. They will not succeed." Greece imposed a 48-hour ban on sending parcels abroad by air freight and screened thousands of packages in an attempt to locate any remaining bombs.
Theresa May, the Home Secretary, is expected to back calls for increased air freight security at a meeting of EU interior ministers in Brussels on Monday.
"The idea is to get working on some concrete proposals to improve aviation security, including cargo. It might even be that something can be done right away," said a diplomat.

Saudi king world's third most powerful: Forbes

PARIS (Kamal Qubeissi)
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia was ranked third in the list of the World's Most Powerful People released Thursday by the leading American business magazine Forbes.
After occupying the ninth place in 2009, King Abdullah moved six places forward to become the third most powerful after Chinese President Hu Jintao and American President Barrack Obama.
Hu Jinatao was described by Forbes as the "paramount political leader of more people than anyone else on the planet" and President Obama was described as the "commander-in-chief of world's largest, deadliest military, leader of world's largest (in spending) and most dynamic economy and holds the unofficial title of ‘Leader of the Free World.'"
Saudi King Abdullah was ranked third for being the head of the nation that "contains the world's largest crude oil reserves and two holiest sites in Islam."
King Abdullah was also praised for introducing a series of reforms while "maintaining good relations with deeply conservative religious establishment."
Although the list saw leaders like Jintao and King Abdullah moving forward, others retreated like Obama who ranked first in the 2009 list. Mexican businessman of Lebanese origins Carlos Slim Helu, the richest man in the world, moved from the sixth to the 21st place and co-founder of Google Sergey Brin from fifth to 22nd.
Some are no longer in the top 10 list like Rupert Murdoch, CEO of News Corp who ranked seventh in 2009 and retreated to 13th in 2010. Bill Gates kept his last year's 10th place.
New leaders joined the top ten list this year, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was ranked sixth, Pope Benedict XVI, ranked fifth, British Prime Minister David Cameron, ranked seventh, and head of the Indian National Congress Sonia Gandhi, who ranked ninth. Both Cameron and Gandhi joined the Forbes list for the first time.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, fourth in 2010 and third in 2009, and Chairman of Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke, eighth in 2010 and fourth in 2009, stayed in the top 10ist.
UAE President Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan ranked 56 for controlling "97.8 billion barrels of proved oil reserves" and Chilean President Sebastian PiƱera ranked 51 after he "led country through aftermath of brutal earthquake, mining rescue, and put economy on track for growth."
Last but not least comes in the 68th place the Australian Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, specialized in unraveling classified information that shock the world and publishing confidential documents. The power acquired by Assange is summarized by the sentence that describes his overwhelming influence.
"Governments and corporations with dirty laundry should be afraid, very afraid," said Forbes website.

(Translated from the Arabic by Sonia Farid)

US deploys Predator drones in Yemen


WASHINGTON — The administration of President Barack Obama has deployed unmanned Predator drones in Yemen to hunt for Al-Qaeda operatives who are becoming increasingly active in that Arab country, The Washington Post reported Sunday.
But citing unnamed senior US officials, the newspaper said US military and intelligence operatives have not fired missiles from these aircraft because they lack solid intelligence on the militants’ whereabouts.
Last month, two packages addressed to synagogues in Chicago containing the hard-to-detect explosive PETN hidden in printer ink cartridges were uncovered in Dubai and Britain’s East Midlands Airport, sparking a global scare.
On Friday, the Yemeni branch of Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the plot and for the September downing of a UPS cargo plane.
The Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) group posted the message on “jihadist” web forums, and called for more explosive parcels to “enlarge the circle of its application to include civilian aircraft in the West as well as cargo aircraft.”
US officials said the Predators have been patrolling the skies over Yemen for several months in search of leaders and operatives of Al-Qaeda, the report said.
But after a series of attacks by Yemeni forces and US cruise missiles earlier this year, Yemeni Al-Qaeda leaders “went to ground,” The Post quotes a senior Obama administration official as saying.
Yemeni officials said they had deep reservations about weapons they said could prove counterproductive, the paper noted.
“Why gain enemies right now?” The Post quotes Mohammed Abdulahoum, a senior Yemeni official, as saying. “Americans are not rejected in Yemen; the West is respected. Why waste all this for one or two strikes when you don’t know who you’re striking?”
Instead, Yemen has asked the United States to speed up shipment of promised helicopters and other military equipment, the report said.
A US defense official said plans were being made to nearly double military aid, to 250 million dollars, in 2011, The Post noted.
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in Australia Saturday that the US military was looking at how to bolster Yemen’s security forces amid growing concern over Al-Qaeda’s foothold in the country.
“I think in terms of training and so on there are things that we can do to help the Yemenis and strengthen their capabilities,” Gates told reporters on his plane before flying in to Melbourne.
“I think it’s fair to say we’re exploring with them a variety of possibilities along those lines,” he said.
Gates offered no details about what kind of assistance was on the horizon, but said: “The primary focus would be on training.”

US military seeks to expand presence in Asia


MELBOURNE: The US military plans to bolster its presence across Asia and is looking at an expansion of ties with Australia’s armed forces, Defence Secretary Robert Gates said.
Building up military cooperation with Australia would reinforce a broader effort to extend the US military’s role across the Asia-Pacific region, Gates told reporters aboard his plane Saturday, before landing in Melbourne.
“We’re looking at ways to strengthen and perhaps make more robust our presence in Asia,” Gates said, referring to a Pentagon review of how American forces are deployed around the world.
“We’re looking at a number of different options, one of those includes talking with the Australians about… areas where we can work together in a mutually beneficial way,” he said.
At an annual Australia-US meeting being held in Melbourne, Gates said the two governments would discuss deepening military ties including cooperation on cyber security, missile defence and “space surveillance.”
But he said there were no plans for new US bases in Australia or elsewhere in the region.
The discussions in Australia come amid concern over China’s increasingly assertive stance in the Pacific and its growing naval power, with some Asian states turning to Washington for support.
Gates, however, insisted that US plans were not designed as a counter-weight to China.
“This isn’t about China at all,” he said.
The United States had an interest in building military ties with Asian countries to combat piracy at sea, bolster counter-terrorism efforts and provide humanitarian relief for natural disasters, he said.
The Pentagon chief added that cooperation on humanitarian operations has come up in talks with China’s military as well.
His comments came as US military leaders consider moving more forces to Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean, beyond the longstanding American presence in South Korea and Japan.
A senior defence official said the Pentagon is “looking at how we can make sure our forces are not just oriented in Northeast Asia, but are looking through down to Southeast Asia and then into the Indian Ocean as this part of the security environment becomes more important.”
Boosting US access to Australian bases, if agreed, would likely mean a larger American presence but precise numbers remained unclear, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
A final decision was still months away, he added.
During the summit, defence chiefs are due to sign an agreement to bolster joint efforts to track objects in space over the southern hemisphere, including satellites, space junk and potential ballistic missiles fired from North Korea, officials said.
The “space situational awareness partnership agreement” could allow for an expanded American presence at the Harold E. Holt Naval Communication Station in Western Australia, which the US military already uses.
Australia’s military alliance with the United States has deep roots and the country remains a top buyer of American weaponry, with US military sales to Australia reaching 1.45 billiondollars in 2010.

Phil Woolas ejected from parliament over election slurs


Court ruling that former immigration minister lied about his Lib Dem opponent triggers a by-election in Oldham East
The former immigration minister Phil Woolas was ejected from parliament today after two high court judges ruled that he lied about his Liberal Democrat opponent during the general election, in a judgment that is likely to have profound implications for all future campaigns.
Woolas claimed the ruling – which also triggered a byelection and barred him from standing again for three years – would “chill political speech”, but the Lib Dem who challenged his 103 majority welcomed the decision, saying lying should play no part in democratic elections.
Elwyn Watkins claimed that Woolas knowingly misled voters in Oldham East in a desperate bid to stir up religious tensions in the last days of the election by claiming Watkins had “wooed” Islamic extremists. He also claimed Woolas lied about Watkins’s intention to live in the constituency.
The specially convened election court upheld those arguments after it saw confidential emails between Woolas’s team, which included the line: “If we don’t get the white folk angry he [Woolas]‘s gone.”
In the first such decision for 99 years, Woolas (who is to seek a judicial review of the verdict) automatically loses his seat in the Commons and is barred for three years. The speaker will clarify byelection plans in the Commons on Monday.
Woolas was also suspended by the Labour party; he had been a shadow cabinet member. The deputy leader Harriet Harman said it was “no part of Labour’s politics to try to win elections by telling lies” and the party would not support any appeal.
The byelection could prove an incredibly volatile first test of the coalition. There was speculation today about whether Woolas’s actions would count against Labour, or whether the party could hold on because of the Liberal Democrat’s poll ratings.
The ruling could change the way elections are fought. The former lord chancellor Lord Falconer said: “It is bound to have ramifications, if there’s no appeal, for how people conduct elections in the future. It is going to make all the political parties say, ‘look, we’ve got to be very, very careful about that in future’.” Sir Alistair Graham, former chairman of the committee on standards in public life, said: “There is a serious warning to all politicians.”
The case was brought under Section 106 of the Representation of the People Act (1983) which makes it an offence for anyone to publish “any false statement of fact in relation to the candidate’s personal character or conduct” to prevent them being elected “unless he can show that he had reasonable grounds for believing, and did believe, that statement to be true”.
The court ruled that Woolas’s claim, in mocked-up newspapers, that Watkins had “wooed” Islamic extremists and failed to condemn radical groups attacks, was deliberately and knowingly misleading. Woolas was also ordered to pay all costs.
Watkins said: “If you know you have lied about your opponent, then simply you have no part to play in democracy.”
Woolas’s solicitor Gerald Shamash, who regularly acts for the Labour party, said: “In reaching this decision the court adopted an interpretation of conduct detailed in a case nearly 100 years ago when considering a 19th-century statute. Those who stand for election must be prepared to have their political conduct and motives subjected to searching scrutiny and inquiry … This decision will inevitably chill political speech.”
The Conservative party co-chairman, Lady Warsi, wrote to Harman last night asking to know what role, if any, Labour HQ played in producing and approving Woolas’s election literature, and whether any individuals there were aware of its contents or signed it off for use.
Labour leader Ed Miliband told Channel 4 News: “The court has made a very clear judgment in this case, a clear finding of fact about what happened and what Phil Woolas did, in that he knowingly made false allegations about his opponent.
“Therefore, I think we have taken the right decision, and the right decision is to suspend him from the party and to say we are not going to fund his further legal action. I think reasonable people will think we have done the right thing. I think that most MPs – the vast, vast majority of people – fight very clean fights, and I think most people would agree that that is the case.
“There is obviously rough and tumble in politics, but sometimes you go beyond rough and tumble. I think this is a salutary reminder to all politicians across the political spectrum about the importance of a clean fight. It’s certainly a reminder that I think all of us will take to heart.”

Iraqi prisoners ‘abused at UK’s Abu Ghraib’


Detainees were starved, deprived of sleep and threatened with execution at JFIT facilities near Basra, high court told
Evidence of the alleged systematic and brutal mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners at a secret British military interrogation centre that is being described as “the UK’s Abu Ghraib” emerged yesterday during high court proceedings brought by more than 200 former inmates.
The court was told there was evidence that detainees were starved, deprived of sleep, subjected to sensory deprivation and threatened with execution at the shadowy facilities near Basra operated by the Joint Forces Interrogation Team, or JFIT.
It also received allegations that JFIT’s prisoners were beaten, forced to kneel in stressful positions for up to 30 hours at a time, and that some were subjected to electric shocks. Some of the prisoners say that they were subject to sexual humiliation by women soldiers, while others allege that they were held for days in cells as small as one metre square.
Michael Fordham QC, for the former inmates, said the question needed to be asked: “Is this Britain’s Abu Ghraib?”
The evidence of abuse is emerging weeks after defence officials admitted that British soldiers and airmen are suspected of being responsible for the murder and manslaughter of a number of Iraqi civilians, in addition to the high-profile case of Baha Mousa, the hotel receptionist tortured to death by troops in September 2003. One man is alleged to have been kicked to death aboard an RAF helicopter, while two others died after being held for questioning.
Last month the Guardian disclosed that for several years after the death of Mousa, the British military continued training interrogators in techniques that include threats, sensory deprivation and enforced nakedness, in an apparent breach of the Geneva conventions. Trainee interrogators were told they should aim to provoke humiliation, disorientation, exhaustion, anxiety and fear in the prisoners they are questioning.
Lawyers representing the former JFIT inmates now argue there needs to be a public inquiry to establish the extent of the mistreatment, and to discover at which point ultimate responsibility lies, along the chain of military command and political oversight.
Yesterday’s hearing marked the start of a judicial review intended to force the establishment of an inquiry. Fordham said: “It needs to get at the truth of what happened in all these cases. It needs to deal with the systemic issues that arise out of them, and it needs to deal with the lessons to be learned.”
The Ministry of Defence is resisting such an inquiry, however. In a statement to the Commons on Monday, Nick Harvey, the Liberal Democrat armed forces minister, said the MoD should be allowed to investigate the matter itself, adding: “A costly public inquiry would be unable to investigate individual criminal behaviour or impose punishments. Any such inquiry would arguably therefore not be in the best interests of the individual complainants who have raised these allegations.”
Harvey said an inquiry would not be ruled out, “should serious and systemic issues” emerge as a result of the MoD’s own investigations.
Yesterday a senior MoD official said the department was committed to investigating the allegations as quickly as possible, and that a public inquiry was unnecessary and inappropriate. Brigadier John Donnelly of the MoD’s Judicial Engagement Policy department said: “We have set up the dedicated Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT) to investigate them as quickly and thoroughly as possible.”
He said the MoD’s IHAT team was headed by “an independent former CID officer”, and offered the most effective means of establishing the truth.
Fordham told the court that an investigation by the MoD would not satisfy the UK’s obligations under the European convention on human rights, and that it would amount to “the military investigating the military”.
Among the most startling evidence submitted to the high court in London yesterday were two videos showing the interrogation of a suspected insurgent who was taken prisoner in Basra in April 2007 and questioned about a mortar attack on a British base.
The recordings – among 1,253 made by the interrogators themselves – show this man being forced to stand to attention while two soldiers scream abuse at him and threaten him with execution. They appear to ignore his complaints that he is not being allowed to sleep and that he has had nothing to eat or drink for two days.
At the end of each session he is forced to don a pair of blackened goggles, ear muffs are placed over his head, and he is ordered to place the palms of his hands together so that a guard can grasp his thumbs to lead him away.
At the end of one session, one of the interrogators can be heard ordering the guard to “rough the fucker off”, or possibly “knock the fucker off”. The guard then runs down a corridor, dragging the prisoner behind him by his thumbs. This man’s lawyers say he was then severely beaten: they allege that the initial blows, and their client’s moans, can be heard faintly at the end of the video.
Before the start of the hearing, which is expected to last three days, Phil Shiner, the lawyer representing the former inmates, said: “It is nonsense to suggest, as the MoD does, it is a case of just a few bad apples. That is absolutely not the case. There are very serious allegations related to very troubling systemic abuse.
“People at the highest level knew what was going on, it goes up to the very highest level and is not something that just happened after we went into Iraq.
“They are not just allegations. I have no doubt a public inquiry can get to the bottom of this.”
In separate proceedings, around 250 Iraqis are bringing damages claims against the MoD, alleging assaults, serious sexual assaults and, in one case, homicide.
An investigation by the army in January 2008, which examined six cases of alleged abuse by British troops, described them as cause for “professional humility”, but concluded that such incidents were not “endemic”. However, the report did not address the possibility that some mistreatment was systematic, with those responsible acting under orders and in accordance with a prewar training regime that called for repeated use of abusive techniques.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission also joined yesterday’s proceedings, saying it was “particularly disturbed” by some of the allegations.
Expert view
If the interrogation techniques on view in the video footage have been used routinely on detainees in Iraq, I would expect many of the survivors to suffer significant psychological harm. I know from years of working with people who have been subjected to this sort of treatment, especially over a sustained period, that it can lead to serious psychological disorders as a direct consequence.
The resulting health problems can continue for many years and cause extensive disruption to the personal and family life of the victim.
As we have witnessed at the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, and as specialist studies by organisations such as the Physicians for Human Rights have shown, recipients of prolonged aggressive, terrifying and threatening interrogations are at risk of developing conditions such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and other anxiety disorders.
The United Nations manual on the effective investigation and documentation of torture, known as the Istanbul Protocol, is widely accepted and used in British courts.
This document lists commonly used methods of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, including humiliation such as verbal abuse, deprivation of normal sensory stimuli such as light and sound, threats of death, poor conditions of detention including lack of food or water, accentuating feelings of helplessness and exposure to ambiguous situations or contradictory messages. All of these methods are either seen or referred to in this video.
The disclosure of this information represents another important step towards getting to the truth of the activities of UK agents in Iraq. All allegations of torture and other ill-treatment should be fully investigated and anyone found to be responsible brought to justice.
Dr Brian Fine, Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture