As British officers became aware in 2007 that captured fighters handed by their soldiers to the Afghans were being tortured, a series of internal memos shows them struggling to avoid being drawn into the prisoner-abuse scandals faced by Canada's military.
In previously classified British government documents released to the court in a detainee-torture trial taking place in London this week, officers commanding the 3,000-soldier British force in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan from 2006 through 2008 chronicle several serious allegations of torture. They also admit no knowledge of the whereabouts of the some of the detainees they've handed to the Afghans.
The court Tuesday heard of documentation, drawn from military files, relating to six known cases in which Afghan captives handed by British forces to the Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) prisons, including one in Canada's military jurisdiction in Kandahar, are said to have been tortured using electric shocks, beatings with wires, whips and metal rods, sleep deprivation and cuts, between early 2007 and late 2008.
The lawyers, representing human-rights groups and drawing on thousands of pages of classified British military documents, are seeking a judicial review of British detainee policy. Unlike Canada, the British military must follow domestic human-rights laws, which require safe treatment of prisoners in foreign countries.
The British detainee-torture scandal unleashed by this trial appears to follow a similar timeline and set of circumstances to the claims made by Canadian officials about treatment of prisoners in Kandahar: By 2007, it was allegedly apparent that detainees were being routinely tortured, but the handovers continued with little apparent scrutiny. One document shows a captured fighter being transferred to the NDS on Jan. 15, 2010, after Britain had declared a moratorium on such practices.
While the British government documents released to the court are redacted at the government's request, the censorship is not as heavy as that applied to Canadian documents released by Ottawa and most details other than proper names are unconcealed.
As a result, the court heard gruesome details from half a dozen cases of torture at the hands of the NDS. In one of them, identified only as "Prisoner D," the detainee was reportedly electrocuted while blindfolded and beaten on two occasions with the butt of a rifle while being held at a secretive NDS detention centre in Kandahar province, a region which was under Canadian command.
Lawyers for the British Secretary of Defence are arguing that proper care was taken to insure that detainees were not mistreated.
In a sequence of internal British military memos that will become part of testimony later in the trial, British officials expressed worry about torture claims made by prisoners as early as June 29, 2007, apparently out of concern that the Canadian detainee-torture scandal could spread to their command.
A Colonel Cole of the legal department of Helmand headquarters warned his fellow officers in a memo: "It would be too easy to ignore these warning signs, only to find that detainees previously held by UK have been mistreated whilst in Afg[han]hands. The fallout of that, as we have seen from Canada's experience, would at best be unwelcome."
This is an apparent reference to Globe and Mail articles, published earlier in 2007, which revealed widespread torture of detainees and were the subject of much discussion in NATO countries.
That memo is followed by one from Provost Marshal Major M.B. Holliday who worries that "the NDS are being so cagey about things … my concern is 'what have they got to hide?' - I think we need to follow this up as soon as possible."
At this point, the British military had repeatedly pledged to keep track of the treatment of all captives turned over to Afghan hands, to monitor their condition and ensure that no torture was taking place. But the subsequent memos show that they were unable even to find out where their captives had been taken.
Sergeant D.J. Ware said he had tried three times to talk with an NDS commander about the treatment of detainees.
"He has confirmed that [redacted]are in NDS custody along with [redacted]but will not disclose their status (ie awaiting custody, awaiting sentence etc.), will not allow us to visit them and he will not tell me where they are being detained. He will only discuss this further in person at his NDS compound but will not disclose where this is!"
There is no sign that the officer was ever able to locate the prisoners. And one of the torture cases documented in court Tuesday claims that the detainee "was never seen again," and a lawyer with knowledge of the case said the detainee had been killed while in custody.
Worries about the torture of detainees appear to have been a major concern of the British as early as September, 2006, near the beginning of the Canadian and British military operations in the south, when a memo from military lawyers describes efforts to have a NATO-monitored prison facility opened and run in order to get the NDS out of the detainee-handling chain.
"Detention will be a contentious issue," it says, and warns that the scandals in Guantanamo Bay and in Abu Ghraib, Iraq are likely to draw attention to detainee cases.
The memo says that a desirable option would be to build a facility in an unused building in Kandahar, but it says that the "proposal is meeting resistance from the Canadians and the Dutch," who do not want to develop a prison in the former U.S. military building. Documents released in the Canadian detainee case have shown that Canada repeatedly avoided building a detention facility, despite requests from several countries and branches of the Afghan government.