Australia denies involvement in Iraqi torture prison

Published Thursday, February 9, 2012

Australia has strenuously denied a media report linking it to a secret US and UK-ran Iraqi prison known as H1, where detainees are said to have been tortured and some killed.

The Guardian, citing a US military document, said an elite Australian squadron of 150 men, known as Task Force 64, was involved in the operation of the facility, a so-called black site, or secret prison hidden from the Red Cross.

The newspaper claimed a British special forces unit and the Australian Special Air Service (SAS) squadron "were an integral part of operations at H1. Both units were under US tactical control."

The US report refers to an incident in April 2003, shortly after Anglo-American forces invaded Iraq.

A group of 64 unarmed men, combined Iraqis, Iranians and Syrians, were taken prisoner by 20 Australian soldiers, and transferred by a British RAF regiment in Chinook helicopters to a secret Iraqi prison.

The Guardian article refers to alleged beatings aboard the Chinooks, including of a severely disabled man who had somehow become detached from his prosthetic legs.

A further two men were made unconscious during the transfer, while a 36-year-old Baghdad man, shown on his passport as Tariq Sabri al-Fahdawi, died in custody, presumably as a result of torture by his captors.

But Australia was absolved of any guilt, with the Guardian revealing that records showed a lone American soldier had captured the 64 unarmed men, thus clearing the Australian government of any wrongdoing or contravening the Geneva conventions.

Australian officials insist, however, that they were not involved in war crimes committed in Iraq. Australia's foreign minister at the time, Alexander Downer, dismissed the allegations.

"I think that's likely to be complete nonsense," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

"I don't think the SAS would have known anything about black sites at that time and certainly we didn't in the Australian government. But we did have protocols in place."

"If memory serves me well...we didn't actually detain prisoners ourselves but we handed them over to countries that – and obviously to the Americans and the British in particular at that time – signed up to international norms of treatment of prisoners in circumstances like that."

Australia was then-led by a right-wing government, and were one of the fiercest supporters of the Bush administration's war agenda in the Middle East.

Australia is also a staunch ally of Israel, and previously supported its wars in Lebanon (2006) and Gaza (2008-2009).

Canberra's current Labor leadership also denied any knowledge of Australian war crimes in Iraq.

"I've got no knowledge of these matters at all," Defense Minister Stephen Smith said.

"These were matters before the [current] government was elected so they were matters during the period of the previous government."

The Public Interest Advocacy Centre, a Sydney-based human rights organization that has been investigating illegal detention in Iraq and Afghanistan, said the revelation cast doubt on Australia's compliance with international law.

Black sites became infamous after the Abu Ghraib scandal, where photographs showed that a US military unit had mistreated Iraqi prisoners there, severely damaging international opinion about the US-led war effort.

Despite widely documented cases of human rights abuses in Iraq committed by occupation forces, it is highly unlikely that any official from the US, Britain, or Australia will be held accountable.

The most recent farcical case saw 31-year-old US soldier Frank Wuterich freed by a US military court in January for his involvement in the massacre of 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha in 2005.

His only punishment was a reduction of his rank to private, while other members of the eight-man squad that carried out the massacre were exonerated.

Iraq had pushed for US and NATO troops to be subjected to Iraqi justice before the US pullout in December.

US and NATO rejected the Iraqi requests, where they would have been liable for any crimes committed against Iraqi civilians.

The US is also not a member of the International Criminal Court (ICC), thus its armed forces cannot be held accountable for war crimes outside of US jurisdiction.

Australia and Britain have ratified the Rome Statute, and thus are technically liable to war crimes tribunals at The Hague.

The Obama administration has, however, voiced its support for the ICC on cases such as Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, while shielding its own soldiers from international law.

(Al-Akhbar, AFP, Guardian)

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