Who Should We Believe? the More People Are Victimised, the Less Account We Take of Their Witness to Torture and Abuse

By Grey, Stephen | New Statesman (1996), May 10, 2004 | Go to article overview

Who Should We Believe? the More People Are Victimised, the Less Account We Take of Their Witness to Torture and Abuse


Grey, Stephen, New Statesman (1996)


Abdullah crouched down until his knees just about touched the ground, nearly but not quite, and his head rested against a concrete wall. It was in this excruciating position that he was made to stay, blindfolded, for hours on end. "If I touched the floor with my knees," he explained, "they would come behind me and strike with their boots, or with rods."

Freed after four months in detention, Abdullah was describing his experience of a special US interrogation centre inside the Baghdad airport base. His worst moment, he said, was the electric shock treatment. Drawing a detailed diagram, Abdullah showed how crocodile clips had been attached to his genitals and then wires passed to a device which looked like a wind-up field telephone that generated a painful electric current.

"I could not believe they would treat a human being like this," said Abdullah, who was accused of involvement in the insurgency against US troops. He asked me not to print his full name as he still feared he might be rearrested. There is no appeal against such detention.

I interviewed Abdullah in Baghdad a couple of months ago, but I never published his account. How could I verify the terrible things he had said, in the face of total denials by US forces? How could I impugn their humanity? After all, Abdullah was a Sunni from el-Adhamiya, one of the city's quarters most hostile to the occupation, and perhaps he was lying.

Now I am inclined to believe what Abdullah told me. Like many Iraqis and Americans and Britons during this past week, I have crossed a sort of watershed in comprehension--in my willingness to believe the testimony of alleged victims of such abuse. This was apparent, too, in the official military inquiry into inmate abuse at the US-run Abu Ghraib, once Saddam Hussein's torture prison.

A few days ago, sitting in my hotel room in Basra, I was reading a report by Major General Antonio M Taguba dated 4 March, and originally marked as "secret/no foreign dissemination". The report outlines a shocking catalogue of torture that goes well beyond the photographs first glimpsed on the CBS show 60 Minutes. According to Taguba, various soldiers had confessed, among other things, to "forcing groups of male detainees to masturbate themselves while being photographed and videotaped ... placing a dog chain or strap around a naked detainee's neck and having a female soldier pose for a picture". Further allegations included "breaking chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid on detainees" and "sodomising a detainee with a chemical light and perhaps a broomstick".

Taguba said that "in the circumstances" he found these claims credible.

This phrase--"in the circumstances"--really struck me. It seemed Taguba, too, had crossed the watershed where he also could believe the words of the victim. …

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