Danish forces involved in giving over detainees to abusive police
»Drug or medicine users are being tortured specially during dark hours«, states a coalition report. The report is dated February 10, 2004, and deals with procedures in Ar Rumaythah’s Police Station in South Eastern Iraq. Under the pretext of a hygiene inspection, representatives from the coalition have gained access to 23 prisoners at the station without interference from the Iraqi police.
»Methods they are using are to blindfold the detainee and hang them upside down on their feet and to hit them on their foot soles. Also the use of an electrical device is confirmed«, the coalition report continues. The document is one of nearly 400,000 military files leaked and expected to be published by WikiLeaks on the Internet today (23 October).
The reports highlight a number of instances in which soldiers from the Danish Iraq Force let Iraqi authorities take over responsibility for detainees, presumably in collaboration with British soldiers, and in which Danes facilitated Iraqi police operations and arrests despite numerous warnings and reports of torture and mistreatment of detainees in police custody.
Time and again, the Danish government has talked about its efforts to promote human rights in Iraq. But the leaked reports indicate that the Danish force may have participated in bringing about gross human rights abuses in war-torn country.
The coalition forces share military reports in so far that they contain no highly sensitive intelligence. This means that the Danish military has also had access to accounts on Iraqi police methods – a strong indication that the coalition forces themselves had knowledge of the situation which was consistent with several highly critical warnings from organizations such as The International Red Cross and Human Rights Watch.
Having reviewed the leaked material, the Danish daily Information has found evidence that in 2004 and 2005 alone, the Danish Iraq Force participated in the capture of at least 84 people, of whom 53 were referred to the Iraqi authorities. This figure is significantly higher than the one so far presented by The Ministry of Defense to the Folketinget, the Danish parliament. In a reply to the Defense Committee from August 2006, the Ministry stated that from January 2004 to June 2006, the Danish battalion detained no more than 24 people.
According to sources who were deployed in Iraq by the Danish military and whom Information has contacted during our examination of the material, the difference in numbers is due to the choice made by the Ministry of Defense to categorize vast majority of detentions as a British responsibility.
In the aftermath of the ’Hommel case’ which began to unwind in the summer of 2004 (A Danish officer, Ms. Annemette Hommel, was accused of mistreating Iraqi prisoners in Danish custody), the handling of prisoners became a controversial issue in the Danish debate. There is nothing in the leaked material to suggest, however, that the case had any practical consequence for Iraqi detainees. But according to Information’s sources, the Danish units in Iraq did adopt a new routine procedure: To always bring along British soldiers on operations in order to ensure that, it was the British who now laid hands, physically, on the detainees when arrests were made and therefore also the British, who were left with the legal responsibility.
Information has presented our findings to two lawyers, Mr. Peter Vedel Kessing from the Danish Institute of Human Rights, and Mr. Claus Juul from the human rights organization, Amnesty International. Due to the sensitivity of the material, which is only expected to be published by Wikileaks today (23 October), it has not been possible to present the two human rights experts with the leaked reports themselves.
Both lawyers are very skeptical when it comes to the role of the Danish units in prisoner renditions.
»If the Danes are in charge of an operation but simply arrange for other nationals to apprehend the prisoners in order to dodge further responsibility, then this would seem to amount to circumvention of the Geneva Convention,« Peter Vedel Vessing says.
»We cannot simply wash our hands. If we were involved on the ground, performing joint operations with for example Iraqi police, then we have to accept that we may have contributed to subjecting the prisoners to mistreatment in Iraqi custody. Therefore, we should have followed up on what happened to the prisoners or made sure that we had a clear agreement with our partners«.
In this, Claus Juul from Amnesty International concurs.
»If Danish soldiers are in charge of an operation, but get others to physically carry out the arrests as a way of renouncing all responsibility for the fate of the detainees – especially with regard to where they are detained and interrogated – it certainly looks like an attempt to sidestep our human rights obligations, particularly the ban on extraditing people to torture and abuse«, Claus Juul says.
»We cannot simply say that responsibility lies with ’other people’ because we have only performed supporting functions such as the shielding of an area, whereas the arrests were made by these ‘other people’, the Britons or the Iraqis. This would amount to saying that a driver who drives a car for a group of bank robbers is not complicit in the crime. This argument has no legality, and the responsibility for the prisoners taken at the operation ultimately remains with the Danes«.
In a report from the International Red Cross to the U.S. government in February 2004 that was leaked to the public in May that year, the Organization warns of severe abuses committed by the Iraqi authorities. According to IRC, under interrogation the prisoners »beaten (..) with cables on their back, kicked in the body's lower parts including the testicles, handcuffed and left hanging from iron bars from cell windows or doors in painful positions for hours and burned with cigarettes.«
In January 2005, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a report on widespread abuse of prisoners allegedly going on throughout Iraq and committed by Iraqi police. HRW’s investigation was conducted from May to October 2004, and according to the report, the situation had certainly not improved since publication of the Red Cross a year earlier. According to HRW, the Iraqi system is characterized by »arbitrary arrests, prolonged detention without legal assessments or trials, torture and mistreatment of prisoners (...), improper treatment of child prisoners and horrific conditions in remand prisons«.
At this point it must therefore have been seen as an established fact that the handover of prisoners to Iraqi police could lead to their torture. But according to leaked reports, the Danish battalion nevertheless persisted both in leaving responsibility for detainees to Iraqi police, and supporting the Iraqi police operations.
On April the 4th 2005, four prisoners were handed over to Iraqi authorities after a major Danish operation with British participation. The Danish Army’s Operational Command informed about the operation in a press release which acknowledges the transfer of the prisoners. A report from the leaked material further reveals that the prisoners were transferred to Al Jameat Police Station in Basra. Later on, The New Statesman has described how Britons were already deeply concerned about conditions at the station, where British-trained police seemed on the point of evolving into a local militia. Six months later, two dead bodies were discovered at the station with drilling holes, suggesting extensive torture, and a 18 months later, the British finally had enough and stormed the police station, freeing the remaining 170 prisoners from their squalid conditions and blowing up the station.
Among the earliest reports in the leaked material, files on atrocities committed by the Iraqi police are scattered and few. But it seems that a change in procedures occurred as of May 2005 when the U.S. military began to gather reports about systematic police abuse in special abuse files.
Already within the first month after the policy change, numerous examples of prisoner abuse committed by Iraqi police are listed. The first report in the series is dated May 3, 2005. A U.S. liaison officer participated in a meeting with the Criminal Police in Baghdad, when he heard screams from the floor above. He wanted to enquire what was going on and went upstairs, where he saw three policemen and a prisoner who »is crying and hopping from foot to foot«. The officers said that the prisoner was under interrogation was a suspect in bank robbery case, while the prisoner himself explains that he was being under his foot soles. The American officer asked the senior officer if the prisoner had in fact been beaten, and the officer acknowledged that »he has been hit a few times to get more information out of him«. After that, the officer searched to officer’s room and found several remedies that could be used as torture instruments, including a hand-driven generator with wires attached, which were equipped with clamps at their ends.
But the Danish force continued to leave the destiny of Iraqis to the Iraqi police. A brief report states that five days after the American officer’s visit at the Criminal Police in Baghdad, a unit under the Danish batallion assisted Iraqi police in arresting an Iraqi civilian in a suburb of Basra. And on July the 18th 2005, a British unit under the Danish battalion apprehended two Iraqis for having attempted to hijack an unspecified identified object. One of the two Iraqis was an adult, the other a child, which according to the report’s estimate must have been 13 to 14 years old.
According to security policy expert at the Danish Institute of Political Science, Professor Peter Viggo Jacobsen, it was to be »expected« that the Iraqi police would abuse prisoners.
»No one could doubt that this takes place. When you look at the culture that preceded this under Saddam, it is not so strange that this problem persisted or that it will take quite a long time to get rid of it, if it’s at all possible to succeed in this«, he says.
»But it’s problematic that our politicians are so reluctant on this issue and that they try to find procedures that would make it possible to tell the public that we haven’t handed over any prisoners without resorting to actual lies. You try to sweep it under the carpet and fail to assume the responsibilities that are rightfully yours. It would be much more elegant if you were open about the fact that war is dirty and errors are bound to occur. I also think that such honesty would command greater understanding among the Danes«.
According to Professor Jacobsen, the fundamental problem is that the Danish forces as well as the other coalition forces did a poor job in transferring responsibility to the Iraqi authorities in a controlled manner.
»The same thing is happening now in Afghanistan«, he says. »As long as we do not manage to build up local security forces, the time for a decent exit will be further postponed or we’ll end up leaving the area at a time when things are not working. We saw that happening in Iraq and I think we’ll have the same problem in Afghanistan.«