The Secret Detention Camps in Iraq
February 8, 2012 1 Comment
by Ian Cobain
February 8, 2012
On the evening of 11 April 2003, a pair of RAF CH47 Chinook helicopters swept over Iraq‘s western desert towards a remote rendezvous point beside Route 10, the highway that begins life on the outskirts of Baghdad before running for mile after mile towards the border with Jordan.
As they approached their destination, the crews assumed they were on an operation that would be uneventful. Two days earlier Saddam Hussein’s statue had been toppled after American tanks rolled into the Iraqi capital; three weeks later George Bush would stand in front of a banner saying “mission accomplished”.
The helicopter crews had been told that a number of detainees were under armed guard at the side of the highway. They were to pick them up after dark and take them to a prison camp. What followed was far from routine: before the night was out, one man had died on board one of the helicopters, allegedly beaten to death by RAF personnel.
The incident was immediately shrouded in secrecy. When the Guardian heard about it and began to ask questions, the Ministry of Defence responded with an extraordinary degree of obstruction and obfuscation, evading questions not just for days but for weeks and months. The RAF’s own police examined the death in an investigation codenamed Operation Raker, but this ended with some of the most salient facts remaining deeply buried. The alleged culprits faced no charges.
Asked where the men were being taken, the MoD had initially indicated that they were en route to a prisoner of war camp, one inspected regularly by the Red Cross.
Later it became clear that this was not correct: they were being transported to an altogether more secret location. The truth about the mission raises some searching questions about the legality of some of the British forces’ operations carried out in close co-operation with US allies.
One of the first hints that something untoward had happened aboard one of the RAF Chinooks came six years later when Lieutenant Colonel Nicholas Mercer was giving evidence at the public inquiry into the death of Baha Mousa, the hotel receptionist tortured to death by British troops in September that year.
Mercer, who had been the British army’s most senior lawyer in Iraq, told the inquiry that by the time of Mousa’s death, several other people had died in UK military custody.
Asked about these mysterious deaths, the Ministry of Defence named one of the deceased as Tanik Mahmud, and said he had “sustained a fatal injury” while travelling aboard an RAF Chinook. Perplexingly, the ministry added that the cause of his death remained unknown.
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