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19 July 2016updated 20 Jul 2016 10:21am

The Chilcot report left many questions concerning the UK’s role in torture unanswered

Chilcot may have closed the book on the Iraq war; but for the survivors of torture and their families, closure must seem like a distant prospect.

By James Chater

On 6 July 2016, seven years after it was commissioned, the findings of the Chilcot Inquiry were published. While many predicted the damning conclusions of the report, few could have predicted the political earthquake that would precede its publication. It was a day that fell between the first and second ballots in the Conservative leadership election (when May’s uncontested win looked unlikely) – and a day which saw the Labour party in disarray following a vote of no confidence in Corbyn’s leadership, but with no formal challenges to replace him yet made.

Under usual circumstances, a report of its magnitude would have commanded headlines for the days following its release – perhaps even weeks. The 2003 invasion of Iraq was one of the most significant foreign policy decisions in Britain’s recent history. Yet within 24 hours – and particularly once Tony Blair had made his official statement – the media had brushed it to the side. With so many political stories to cover in post-Brexit Westminster, the report of the Iraq Inquiry simply got swallowed up.

For those in the Blair administration, who had waited seven years for this day of reckoning, the timing was fortuitous. Chilcot’s findings were damning. From the over-emphasis placed on intelligence assessments prior to the invasion, to the lack of political foresight for Iraq after Saddam, the report left an indelible stain on what is already a dark period for Britain’s international reputation.

And while the lack of extended attention given to report might also reflect a broader desire to close the chapter on the Iraq war, for the survivors of torture and abuse at the hands of British forces, the conflict’s effect on them is yet to be addressed.

Of the 2.6m words the report contains, torture is mentioned only a handful of times – and even then, almost exclusively in the context of Saddam Hussein’s regime. The absence is surprising, particularly given the existence of two major public inquiries into allegations of torture, because evidence extracted under torture was cited in 2002 reports arguing for the necessity of the invasion, and with numerous allegations still hanging over the head of the British government.

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Commenting on its absence from the report, Clive Stafford Smith, director of Reprieve, said:

“It is astounding to me that there is no focus on what is by far the most important story of the run-up to the war. The rendition to Egypt and torture of Ibn Sheikh al Libi, who was tortured into saying that Al-Qaeda was in league with Saddam Hussein with respect to WMD.”

He continued: “This was directly cited by Bush in October 2002, and again by Colin Powell in the UN, as one of the major justifications for war. Either it was linked to the dodgy dossier (the ultimate indictment of the bitter fruits of torture) or it was not (which would be highly unlikely – how did the UK reach the same conclusion without either crediting or discrediting the main claim of its closest ally?). Yet it is not discussed.”

Whilst the implications of torture prior to the 2003 invasion are omitted from the report, so too are the public inquiries into allegations of torture by British personnel during the war; the Baha Mousa and al-Sweady inquiries.

Baha Mousa, an Iraqi hotel receptionist, died whilst in British custody in 2003. The 2011 report into his death found that he suffered over 90 injuries, including a broken nose and fractured ribs, during two days of physical abuse. He was hooded for 24 hours, and was also subjected to food and water deprivation. Despite the incontrovertible evidence against UK personnel, and then Defence Secretary Des Browne admitting to “substantial breaches” of the European Convention of Human Rights, only 1 of the 7 servicemen under investigation was handed a jail-term. Corporal Donald Payne received a one-year term after pleading guilty to inhumane treatment. The other six men were cleared of all charges.

However, the outcome of the al-Sweady Inquiry showed the legal, political, and diplomatic quagmire that such allegations can entail. The inquiry was launched in 2009 following alleged abuse by British servicemen following the 2004 “Battle of Danny Boy” in southern Iraq. The report, which took five years to complete at a cost of over £20m, resulted in no prosecutions after the allegations were found to be unsubstantiated.

Although Sonya Sceats, Director of Policy and Advocacy at Freedom from Torture, contests that “the Ministry of Defence did not emerge from the inquiry with a clean bill of health”, the inquiry resulted in government pressure being applied in the opposite direction – to the claimants of abuse and their legal representatives. It’s what has come to be called “lawfare” – the alleged withholding of information to delay the outcome of inquiries, or the launching of no-win, no-fee cases on the basis of exaggerated information. The inquiry has made claimants the subject of greater suspicion and scrutiny.

Phil Shiner, founder of Public Interest Lawyers, a firm instrumental in lobbying for public inquiries to take place, has recently been on the receiving end of such government pressure. In a dossier published by the MoD earlier this year, the government called for Shiner’s firm to be fined and struck off for, “delaying by approximately 12 months the announcement that they were no longer pursuing the false allegations of torture and murder.”

Shiner has denied the allegations made by the government, and has accused them of mounting a “personal vendetta” against him for unearthing historical claims.

And whilst the profit made by a small number of people has complicated the matter – charities like Reprieve do not accept financial remuneration for their work to ensure the integrity of their practice – the fact remains that government responses to the claims have been inadequate.

Of the 1,374 cases under investigation by the Iraq Historical Allegations Team (IHAT) – a unit set up by the Cameron administration in 2010 – only 33 have been completed. No prosecutions have been made. While some deaths have been proven to be caused by legitimate military conflict, some are alarmingly sinister.

One case (IHAT/85) details the death of Ahmed Jabaar Kareem Ali, a boy under the age of 18 who drowned after being beaten and thrown into a river in Basra by British soldiers. The IHAT investigation concluded that the, “decision has been made to discontinue any further work on the case after the investigation identified there was no prospect of gaining any new or compelling evidence to go any way to altering a previous decision made by the courts martial”.

Furthermore, in 2012 a former IHAT employee spoke out against the working culture of the unit; claiming investigators would often comment, “who cares, they’re terrorists”, when watching videos of abuse.

Another inquiry, the Gibson Inquiry – set up in 2010 – was transferred to the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) in 2012, a government body that has the power to veto any evidence before publication in a report. The transfer was made despite David Cameron saying such an organisation was “obviously” unsuited for the work it had to carry out.

So what happens now? An important juncture has been reached – with the Chilcot report now published, and a new Prime Minister in office. However for human rights organisations, little will be settled until an independent judicial inquiry, of sufficient separation from government, is carried out.

But the longer the government waits – and the longer the victims are denied closure – the more difficult it becomes to adequately investigate the claims. The Crown Prosecution Service often stipulates the passage of time as a main reason for discontinuing investigations – and it’s also a common reason given for discontinuing cases on the IHAT website.

Brexit could further complicate matters. Some have suggested that it paves the way for the repeal of the European Convention on Human Rights, a prerequisite for EU membership, to be replaced by a British Bill of Rights; a worrying prospect for the human rights community in the UK. Sceats has argued that the Conservative party’s attempt to repeal the Human Rights Act “is designed to shut down its extra-territorial application. We know that it has absolutely been motivated to shut down the claims being made by Iraqis”. If it is repealed, allegations could be even more difficult to process.

In the run-up to the EU referendum, Theresa May was vocal about her opposition to the European Convention on Human Rights. But despite her less-than-glowing record on human rights, Sceats points to her history of “taking on vested interests” as a reason for optimism:

“Whether resisting US pressure by taking on high-profile extradition cases, or by taking on the Police Federation in 2014, she is someone who doesn’t shy away from doing what she believes is right – even if that means ruffling feathers in very powerful parts of government or the public sector.”

What is needed is clear, but until an independent judicial inquiry is launched, the numerous claims of torture will continue to be unjustly neglected. Chilcot may have closed the book on the Iraq War; but for the survivors of torture and their families, closure must seem like a distant prospect.

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