America's Iraqi prisoners

Detainees – all Iraqis, save for a small number of foreigners – are denied their basic right not to

Iraq is casting a long shadow over the US presidential race, and with relative calm in the country the candidates are debating how fast US troops should quit Iraq. Senator Barack Obama’s 16-month timetable for withdrawal has the backing of Iraqi leaders, and the Bush administration itself now endorses a “time horizon” for troop cuts. But absent from the debate has been any discussion of the fate of nearly 21,000 prisoners held in Iraq by US forces. Obama and his Republican rival Senator John McCain ought to start talking now about what to do with detainees in US military custody in Iraq.

The US-led Multinational Force-Iraq (MNF) has claimed the authority to hold the detainees under successive UN Security Council Resolutions, the last of which expires at the end of the year. Prospects for a status-of-forces agreement (SOFA) and related pacts that might fill the legal void are clouded by the Bush administration’s lame duck status.

The detainees – all Iraqis, save for a small number of foreigners – are effectively denied their basic right not to be held indefinitely without charge or trial. Many are young men rounded up in mass, arbitrary arrests. They are promised a review of their cases every six months, though the MNF has told Human Rights Watch reviews are more frequent in practice. Yet on average, detainees remain in custody for more than 300 days, according to MNF figures as of May. The detainees, divided between a remote prison near Basra and a smaller one near Baghdad’s airport, have little access to relatives, who in many cases cannot afford to visit or fear reprisal. Although about a tenth of detainees face charges in an Iraqi criminal court; the vast majority are never charged.

The MNF has argued that the detainees are held as imperative security threats, and are not entitled to criminal due process. International law does indeed allow for administrative detention, but the United States has not even met the basic requirements for holding people under such circumstances. The cases are reviewed by military panels, with no meaningful access to legal counsel and no judicial review – both of which detainees are entitled to under international law.

There are 360 children among the detainees, down from 500 in May. Many have been held for months, and some for more than a year, often without access to the educational services provided to children at one MNF facility. Those children referred to trial by the MNF are held at an Iraqi facility described by the UN as so overcrowded it threatens the children’s health.

Few would dispute that the conditions of US military detention have improved since the images of shocking abuse that emerged in 2004 from the Abu Ghraib prison. It’s also clear that, however vigorous MNF attempts to expedite detainee releases this population is not going anywhere soon. The outgoing head of US detainee operations estimated in June that 10,000 people had been released through expanded review procedures introduced in September 2007, yet the overall population is only slowly falling from its peak near 26,000 in 2007. Britain, Washington’s principal partner in the invasion of Iraq, has all but ended its role as a jailer in Iraq – Foreign Office officials say UK forces now have two detainees in the country – leaving the US military as the face of foreign military detention in Iraq.

In the wrangle over a bilateral agreement that would govern the presence of US troops in Iraq, the meaning of Iraqi sovereignty looms large. Much of Iraq’s political class rejects the idea of an open-ended US military presence (no easy sell ahead of provincial elections scheduled for this year), advocating a short-term agreement and possible negotiations with the next administration. The Bush administration appears to accept that possibility.

All parties to this debate should back up their rhetoric about Iraqi sovereignty by ending the legal vacuum in which the MNF holds detainees. A step in that direction would be a US-Iraqi agreement to bring the status of these detainees in line with international human rights law and the laws of war for conflicts like the one in Iraq. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Iraq has ratified, requires among other things that detainees face a judge promptly, and have prompt access to legal counsel and family members. Such a commitment should encourage the Iraqi authorities to improve their own poor record on detention and abuse of detainees.

The United States should also release at once detainees unlikely to be charged, and transfer others against whom there is evidence for criminal proceedings to Iraqi courts – with the safeguard that no one should be transferred there if they are at risk of abuse.

The US presidential candidates are now jockeying to claim victory for their Iraq plans. Both should commit to ending the legal limbo of detention in Iraq, by upholding international legal standards in Iraq and restoring justice to the thousands wrongly held.

Joseph Logan is the Iraq researcher for Human Rights Watch

Show Hide image

An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State