By Judy Cox
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British army’s history of torture and repression

This article is over 17 years, 8 months old
POLITICIANS HAVE said that the allegations of torture by British troops have impugned the reputation of the army. In fact, torture is a weapon long used by the British army to terrorise those who have challenged its imperial power.
Issue 1901

POLITICIANS HAVE said that the allegations of torture by British troops have impugned the reputation of the army. In fact, torture is a weapon long used by the British army to terrorise those who have challenged its imperial power.

The torture is not carried out by “rogue soldiers”. It is a policy sanctioned by the highest levels of the military and political establishment. It flows from the need to use force and fear to repress resistance.

The writer Mark Curtis says that in 1971 an official British investigation found that the British army’s torture techniques “played an important part in counter-insurgency operations in Palestine, Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus and the British Cameroons (1960-1), Brunei (1963), British Guiana (1964), Aden (1964-7), Borneo/Malaysia (1965-6), the Persian Gulf (1970-1) and in Northern Ireland (1971)”.

Beatings, sexual humiliation, hooding, sleep deprivation, bombarding with white noise-all these techniques were pioneered by the British army in places like Kenya. White British settlers had ruled Kenya since 1890 and they were determined to face down all calls for change. In 1952 the British declared a state of emergency in response to demands for independence spearheaded by the African Mau Mau organisation. The British wanted an excuse to quell a growing movement for self government and land reform.

The Mau Mau were demonised as bestial, savage and intent on slaughtering white settlers. Only 32 Europeans died at the hands of the Mau Mau during the five-year state of emergency-more whites died in traffic accidents in the capital city, Nairobi.

Kenyans were forced into concentration camps, or “protected villages”, and routinely tortured. Some 150,000 Africans died as a direct result of the British strategy. A former British officer described a British detention camp in Kenya in 1954: “Short rations, overwork, brutality, humiliating and disgusting treatment, flogging-all in violation of the UN Declaration on Human Rights.”

There was a “constant stream of reports of brutalities by police, military and home guards”, wrote Canon Bewes, a British missionary. “Some of the people had been using castration instruments and two men had died under castration.” Other brutalities included slicing off ears, boring holes in eardrums, flogging people to death, pouring paraffin over suspects and setting them alight and burning eardrums with cigarettes.

A British district officer admitted, “There was outright abuse of power and some of the crimes committed were horrific. One day six Mau Mau suspects were brought into a police station in the neighbouring district to mine. The British police inspector in charge lined them up against a wall and shot them.”

A mobile gallows travelled the country. Over 1,000 were hanged, their bodies displayed at crossroads and market places. The appalling human rights abuses were only stopped when a public outcry greeted the murder of 11 Kenyans by guards at the Hola concentration camp in March 1959.

The British used these methods against an independence movement in another British colony, Malaya. In the 1950s Malaya was one of the most profitable corners of the British empire, providing a third of the world’s rubber and tin.

Malayan Communists spearheaded resistance to the British, who claimed their extreme methods were necessary to defeat this threat to the free world. But a Foreign Office secret file from the time said, “The war against Malayan bandits is very much a defence of the rubber industry.”

With trade union organisation and strikes on the rise, the British Labour government declared a state of emergency in 1948. This was its pretext for cracking down on guerrillas and labour movement activists.

To combat an insurgent force of between 3,000 and 6,000, British forces embarked on a brutal war. This involved aerial bombing, massacres of villagers, dictatorial police measures and the wholesale “resettlement” of hundreds of thousands of people. Malayan high commissioner General Sir Gerald Templar bragged of his “winning hearts and minds policy”. This involved British troops beating up squatters, shooting villagers, cutting off water supplies to villages and imposing arbitrary curfews. The British were forced to leave but they left a legacy. Many of the techniques they used in Malaya were copied by the US in Vietnam, such as the use of defoliants like Agent Orange.

No one should be surprised by British soldiers’ use of torture. It is a systematic and longstanding policy. It was an inherent part of Britain’s attempt to impose its colonial rule around the world and is an inescapable part of British imperialism in Iraq today.


‘Harsh treatment’ to keep people down

THE BRITISH declared another state of emergency when their rule over the strategically important island of Cyprus was challenged. During the state of emergency, which lasted from 1952 to 1957, Cypriots accused the British army of torture. British forces admitted using “harsh treatment”.

Cypriot Nicos Koshies remembered what this involved: “They took me to the Special Branch and they started beating me. They took off all my clothes, they tied my hands and feet. They asked somebody to come in. He was taking a stick to put up my bottom, he was putting cloths in water and putting them on my face so I could not breathe, he threw me down and danced on my stomach when he was wearing boots. After 12 days I could not recognise myself.”

James Callaghan, then Labour’s colonial spokesman, described a death in British custody to the House of Commons: “On 29 June 1957 an inquest was held into the death of Nicos Georghiou. Dr Clearkin said in evidence that bruises in the head were sufficiently severe to have caused the injuries to the brain, perhaps bumping the head against a hard object.”

A public inquiry was ruled out as too damaging to the morale of the police and the troops.

British forces also used torture to protect their interests in the Middle East. In 1953 a coup organised by the British and the US intelligence services overthrew the popular Iranian prime minister Mossadeq and gave full power to the Shah.

British SAS forces trained the Shah’s notorious Savak secret police. SAS officers helped train the Iranian army in special operations against the Kurds. The Shah’s regime used torture until it was overthrown in 1979. In Aden, later known as South Yemen, SAS squads used terror against local villages in a vain attempt to crush a national independence movement.

An official investigation found that from 1964 to 1967 detainees at a British interrogation centre were routinely tortured. Their eardrums were burst. Others were forced to lean against walls with their fingertips for day and subjected to white noise for hours.

In 1966 the Persian Gulf state of Bahrain was still under British sovereignty. The British appointed Ian Henderson to run Bahrain’s security intelligence services. Henderson had been awarded a George Medal during the Mau Mau war in Kenya. Former detainees in Bahrain have described being beaten, electrocuted, whipped, tied in excruciating positions for days on end, kept awake, starved and having their toenails torn out by Henderson’s men.

Henderson was head of the intelligence services until 1998, even though Bahrain had become independent. He continues to serve as a senior adviser to the Ministry of the Interior. He cannot return to his native Scotland for fear of being prosecuted.

Thirty years of sheer brutality in Northern Ireland

IN THE early 1970s the British army used torture in Northern Ireland in response to the growing Republican movement and agitation for Catholic civil rights. The Tory government introduced internment without trial in August 1971. Hundreds were picked up and held in detention centres. The Compton official inquiry acknowledged that the army hooded suspects, fed them on just bread and water and blasted them with noise. The report decided that “in depth” techniques did not contravene “accepted British army procedures”.

An Amnesty International report said, “It is because we regard the deliberate destruction of a man’s ability to control his own mind with revulsion that we reserve a special place in our catalogue of moral crimes for techniques of thought control and brainwashing. Any interrogation procedure which has the purpose or effect of causing a malfunction or breakdown of a man’s mental processes constitutes as grave an assault on the inherent dignity of the human person as more traditional techniques of physical torture.”

A European human rights report found that British army techniques amounted to “inhuman and degrading treatment” causing “at least intense physical and mental suffering”. But the torture continued for nearly 30 years. The Castlereagh detention centre was particularly notorious. An Amnesty report in 1991 revealed that three women were raped by guards there. In 1994 the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhumane or Degrading Treatment or Punishment called for immediate improvements at Castlereagh. In July 1995 the UN Human Rights Committee recommended it should be closed “as a matter of urgency”. It was not closed until 1999.


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