Faith communities encouraged to seek the truth about Iraq

By staff writers
16 Mar 2008

Faith communities in Britain have been urged to ask the British government tough questions about abuses in Iraq and to seek a public enquiry to determine what has happened in the years succeeding the illegal 2003 invasion and occupation.

The call came in a meeting on ethics and values aimed particularly at churches and other faith groups, addressed by leading human rights lawyer Phil Shiner, an active Christian, who has been pursuing a range of ground-breaking legal cases highlighting horrifying examples of abuse against Iraqi citizens and suggesting patterns of personal and institutional complicity far in excess of anything discussed in the general UK media. [Warning: disturbing material follows]

Mr Shiner said that the general perception was that while the United States was culpable for well known abuses at Abu Ghraib, the assault on Fallujah and elsewhere, evidence of the involvement of British regiments (not just “a few rotten apples”) in extrajudicial abuse and killings suggested that this was far from the truth.

The widely circulated Abu Ghraib images showed male Iraqis forced into sexual positions with one another, into simulated oral sex, being threatened by soldiers' punches or of US soldiers alongside what are either badly abused or dead Iraqis.

“Most UK citizens seem to believe that we would never do such things. Nothing could be further from the truth,” said Mr Shiner, the Law Society’s current ‘solicitor of the year’, and head of the team at Public Interest Lawyers (PIL). “The photographs from the Camp Breadbasket court martial show very similar patterns of abuse.”

Mr Shiner described evidence he had investigated concerning appalling incidents preceding the death of a man called Baha Mousa. UK soldiers, he said, flushed dirty toilet water over male Iraqis. Later, at the same military facility, they photographed each other punching hooded detainees, some of whom were threatened with execution. One was offered release in exchange for sex with his sister.”

“The litany of sexual and religious humiliation is endless,” he declared. “There appears to be no material difference between the two forces, US and UK, when it came to degrading treatment. Worse still, there are now witness statements prepared for UK High Court proceedings by myself and my colleague Martyn Day [of Leigh Day & Co], which suggest that, in May 2004, UK soldiers in Abu Naji facility may have executed up to 20 Iraqis, tortured another nine, and subjected some of the 20 dead to unspeakable atrocities before final dispatch.”

Mr Shiner claimed that “the systemic failings that underpin these violations go to the top of government, the civil service and the military. We had a written policy allowing stressing and hooding, and our interrogators were trained to do so. Scores of Iraqis now complain of torture, abuse, and killings in UK detention facilities.”

However, he said the answer was not blame and retribution, but the implementation of the highest standards of protection enshrined in the Human Rights Act, the United Nations Convention on Torture and other international provisions. This meant recognising morality and human solidarity over political and military expediency.

Methodist minister David Moore, who has many years of ecumenical and inter-faith work, and is also a sculptor and artist, asked how people of faith and hope – whatever there religious or non-religious convictions – could respond to such horror practically and spiritually.

In the reflection and worship preceding the meeting, the Rev Murdoch McKenzie from the Iona Community lead the gathering in an affirmation created by US Christians calling for a withdrawal of the Western military presence in Iraq, the creation of an international solution based on the needs and aspirations of the Iraqi people, active support for the psychological, spiritual and material needs of those damage by war and occupation, and a change of heart by both faith bodies and politicians.

The meeting talked about action that can be taken within faith communities at local and national level in Britain, both within particular traditions and at an inter-faith level. Church leaders will shortly be encouraged to raise the issues of a review of British actions in Iraq with Gordon Brown and the government. Though the issues are tough, the interest of governance with integrity depends upon facing the truth, participants agreed.

Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society think tank Ekklesia, who chaired the meeting, commented: “Churches and faith communities in Britain should have a clear and continuing interest in truth-telling, justice and peacemaking. The government needs to recognise the moral, political and legal impulse toward a public enquiry on UK detention policy, patterns of abuse, what standards should apply and how to ensure that what has happened in Iraq never happens again."

Detailed material from this meeting will appear shortly on Ekklesia. See also: http://www.publicinterestlawyers.co.uk/general/news.php

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