Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

The heirs to Blair

September 18, 2014

If I had a vote in the Scottish Referendum, which I don’t, I’d vote No, for several reasons. One of the strongest is that Alex Salmond and the other Yes campaigners strike me as the worst examples in British politics since Tony Blair of ‘just wish for whatever you want to happen, and denounce anyone who says that this might not occur’.

If Salmond et al really were serious about a Scandinavian-style Scottish social democracy, they’d at least have done some thinking about the basic economics of the transition. Going by Salmond’s public pronouncements, that simply hasn’t happened, and anyone who wants to talk about this is some kind of hopeless naysayer. The parallels with Tony Blair’s predictions of just how marvellous post-invasion Iraq was going to to be are rather striking.


Jelly-bellied flag-flappers and self-appointed Wilfred Owens

January 18, 2014

Over at ‘Blood and Treasure’, Jamie Kenny declares himself disgusted by the attempts by the likes of Michael Gove to use the 1914 commemorations as an excuse for idiotic smear campaigns and jingoistic rhetoric. I agree, very strongly.

Gove’s rhetoric is based, in part, on a not-even-quarter-digested reading of recent scholarship on the war. And it’s based, in part, on Gove’s apparent need to establish himself as the resident intellectual, and possible leadership candidate, of the Tory Right. Yes, Mr Gove, why not use the death of millions of people as a career opportunity? Borrowing a splendid phrase from one of Kipling’s ‘Stalky’ stories, Jamie denounces Gove and other jingoists as ‘jelly-bellied flag-flappers’.

But then, alas, Jamie links to an article by Solomon Hughes, which is not merely stupid but genuinely contemptible. It has an awful lot in common with Gove’s anonymous smear campaign about the commemoration plans.

Hughes informs us: ‘The only way to properly reflect the feelings of those who lived through the first world war is to ignore Gove and sign up to the No Glory campaign at’

Click on the link, and one finds that ‘’ wants us to sign a petition already signed by a collection of luvvies and fashionistas (the late Roger Lloyd Pack, Simon Callow, Vivienne Westwood ad hoc genus) leavened by one or two genuine wankers (Tony Benn, Billy ‘Not Even Unintentionally Funny Anymore’ Bragg). And it thinks we must read a bunch of articles on the war by such towering historians as Mark Steel.

So, Solomon thinks that we don’t properly respect the sufferings of those who fought in the Great War unless we do as he bids and sign up to the dozy and ignorant rhetoric peddled by the normal collection of ‘politically aware’ minor celebrities, stand-up comics and op-ed writers?

Since I have no intention of signing the ‘No Glory’ petition, I guess that I am refusing to ‘properly reflect’ on, say, my paternal grandfather, who fought on the Western Front and in Italy and who lived the rest of his life, in my father’s sad memory, as a broken man.

Thanks for the lecture, Solomon, but if you imagine you have even the slightest authority to tell me that there is only one way to ‘properly reflect’ the tragedy of the Great War, and that that way involves signing some dumb online petition got up by a bunch of geniuses who don’t seem to have read a single serious book on the war between them, then you know what you can do to yourself.

Both the grotesque, and borderline racist, Gove briefings, and the Solomon Hughes/Billy Bragg/Tony Benn/other-assorted-cretins campaign are doing the same thing. To borrow Dan Davies’s brilliant satire of some of the more exploitative reactions to 9/11, all these fools are saying is ‘Why the death of several million people in the Great War means we must support my politics’. Jelly-bellied flag-flappers are indeed revolting specimens, but then so are self-appointed Wilfred Owens.

I’ll be commemorating the Great War this year as I always do in November, by reading about it, and thinking about what I’ve learned from my reading, and hoping that I might possibly act more honestly and intelligently as a result.

But if this doesn’t appeal to anyone, you can go and sign a petition endorsed by Tony Benn and Billy Bragg. It’s the only way to properly reflect on the carnage, I hear.

Chris Bryant, MP- give the man a tenner

April 3, 2008

There are Iraqi former Employees who owe a considerable debt to Chris Bryant, Labour MP for the Rhondda and PPS to Harriet Harman. He has spoken for their cause in public, at the House of Commons on October 9th; he has, as I well know, pressed Ministers in private, and in detail, and has worked hard and effectively on the Employees’ behalf.

Other MPs have also done a lot in this cause: I will write at length some time about my MP Lynne Featherstone, who reacted brilliantly when a scruffy constituent wandered into her surgery with a long list of demands. David Lidington, the Tory frontbench spokesman for Foreign Affairs, has also been a really outstanding public servant. And there have been several other MPs and Peers who have deeply impressed me, although the detailed thanks should probably wait until at least one employee has actually been flown out of Iraq. The bad MPs may well be lousy, but the good MPs are very good indeed.

I have to say that Chris deserves special praise for one reason: he associated himself with some very vocal critics of Government policy although he himself was a frontbencher. An awful lot of frontbenchers, senior and junior, kept their heads well down on this issue. I know: I asked them to help. I stress that Chris himself is the model of a loyal Labour man. But he worked hard to get the policy changed because he thought that there was a moral case to do so.

And now Chris is running in the London Marathon, the mad fool, to raise money for research into prostate cancer. As Chris points out, this condition kills rather a lot of people in a very painful way, but not enough men get themselves tested for it, and not enough research is conducted into its causes.

You can sponsor him here. And I think you should. If I may ruthlessly deploy a cliche, he put his money where his mouth was to support the Iraqi employees, and continues to do so. I was hoping to wittily turn the cliche around and say that we should put money where his feet are, or something, but it’s late and I’m tired. It’s a good cause and he’s a good guy, so give him some cash.

Meeting now in Portcullis House

October 8, 2007

And another announcement: the meeting on Iraqi Employees will take place on the same day (Tuesday 9th October) at the same time (7-9pm) with the same speakers in a changed venue very close to the original one: the Attlee Suite in Portcullis House (MPs’ own office block, opposite Parliament). The long-suffering and highly efficient Mette Kahlin will be standing outside the door of the old venue (Committee Room 14 in Parliament) pointing the way to the new venue, which is the Attlee Suite in Portcullis House. How do you get there? Walk to Parliament and it’s the very ugly building at the corner of Bridge Street and Victoria Embankment, facing Big Ben (or St. Stephen’s Tower, if you really must). If you get lost, which you won’t, ask one of the police officers, who are actually very helpful, or just look round for the biggest eyesore. It is unmissably hideous.

Poor Mette had the job, a couple of hours ago, of telling me that – despite the fact that she booked the room back in the first week of September, despite the fact that not double-booking rooms is a task open to the simplest person capable of using something like Outlook, despite the fact that a struggling provincial hotel could manage to avoid doing something like this- a Cabinet Minister claimed that she had previously booked the room and so we were bounced out. Oh, imagine my joy. It quite took the pleasure out of learning that I was a qualified physician.

Salt in the wound: the Cabinet Minister in question is Hazel Blears. Silver lining: we can get TV crews in to film in the Attlee Suite, which we couldn’t in Committee Room 14.  That’s Committee Room 14, our old venue. And of course our new venue is the Attlee Suite in Portcullis House.

I am not a Doctor

October 7, 2007

I am not a Doctor, of Medicine or anything else.  Nor have I ever claimed to be a Doctor. I have indeed completed a medical training course of two weeks’ duration.  I do, in fact, research a particular commodities industry, and the journalist who just called me a Doctor in the pages of a national newspaper knows this because we first met when I brought his attention to a story about the price of building materials and the cost of the London Olympics. If he’d forgotten that, he needed to simply check with me as to my profession, or to the extent of my medical training, and he didn’t.

This is simply so that we don’t get Press Officers saying that I’m some nutter who has awarded himself a medical degree. No I’m not, and no I haven’t. I also note that I am entirely in agreement with Ministry of Defence policy, that serving soldiers should not speak to the Press without permission, and should not make political statements under any circumstances. Reservists- who include a number of MPs-  may do both so long as they do so as citizens, without identifying themselves as soldiers or doing so whilst they are in uniform, or revealing sensitive or classified military information.

How to Invite your MP

October 1, 2007

Another excuse dies the death: the Americans, or at any rate their Congress, are doing what the British Government lacks the moral courage to do. (Hat tips to these two gentlemen.)

There will be a meeting at Parliament on Tuesday October 9th, to call for the British Government to recognise its responsibilities and give shelter to the Iraqis endangered by their work for this country’s troops and diplomats. You can invite your MP.  And if you care about these people, you should. 

The more MPs we get in the meeting, the better. They are not going to listen to Mark Brockway, who is getting desperate emails from the Iraqis he hired, and walk away indifferent; they are not going to listen to Richard Beeston of the Times and decide that they can ignore this. We are going to make it impossible for the Home Office to carry on with its delaying tactics.

This is how to invite your MP:

1) Find your MP: type your postcode into ‘They work for you’.

2) Copy-and-paste or better still, adapt this form invitation below (and make any changes you want, but we have to keep these letters courteous).  Also; make sure that your address and postcode are on the letters

3) You can then either email it to your MP (email addresses for MPs take the form– thus Gordon Brown is ) or you can post it to ‘MP’s name,  The House of Commons, Westminster, London, SW1A 0AA.’ If you have the time, printed letters are better than emails: and it’s not that hard to write a letter, is it? If you get a bounceback from an MP’s email address, get in touch with me  ( ) as I have a bunch of alternative contact details now, or -better still- write the print letter and post it.  Please make sure that your address and postcode are clearly written on either emails or print letters, so that the MP realises they are dealing with one of their own constituents.

4) If you are in London on the evening of Tuesday 9th October, please come along to the meeting in person. Go to St Stephen’s entrance, facing College Green (the police tend to be helpful here) and ask for admission. There will be at least one campaigning blogger at the entrance, ready to point you in the right direction: remember the meeting starts at 7pm.

Thank you- and, hopefully, see you there.


Iraqi Employees of British Forces – Parliamentary Speaker Meeting, Tuesday October 9th


As your constituent, I am writing on behalf of ‘We can’t turn them away’, an online campaign for resettlement for those Iraqis threatened by death squads for their work with British forces. We would like to invite you to a meeting in Committee Room 14 of the Houses of Parliament on Tuesday October 9th from 7 to 9pm .

As you may well have seen in The Times, Iraqi citizens who have worked as interpreters for British forces are being tortured and murdered by death squads for having worked with the occupying forces.

Speakers will include:

Mark Brockway (a former Warrant Officer in the Territorial Royal Engineers, who ran the

British Army’s Quick Impact Reconstruction Projects in 2003,  when he hired a great many

Iraqi staff in 2003. Mark has been in close contact with them since and knows of at least

one who has been recently murdered;

Richard Beeston, senior Foreign Correspondent for ‘The Times’ newspaper.

Ed Vaizey MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

Lynne Featherstone MP, Liberal Democrat spokesperson for International Development.

A senior Labour MP.

A number of reporters from television, the national press and BBC Radio will attend the meeting.

This is a cross-party, moral issue, on which both opponents and supporters of the Iraq war can agree. Whilst the Government has said that it is reviewing the policy, no change has yet been made, and further delay is likely to leave Iraqi employees at the mercy of the local death squads. Attendance at this event certainly does not imply any agreement with the aims of our campaign: you are welcome to come and ask searching questions, or to send a Researcher to represent you.

If you cannot come to the meeting, I would also ask that you write to the Home Secretary, and to the Immigration Minister, Liam Byrne, asking for an explanation of why policy has not changed despite the announcement of an ‘urgent review’ of the matter on August 8th this year.  

Thank you very much for your time.

There’s only one Alisher Usmanov

September 25, 2007

This blog’s ex-Soviet affairs correspondent writes, in response to my request for details about Alisher Usmanov, that he is ‘one of the worst’ of the current Russian oligarchs, and notes that ‘Central Asia was infamous for its mafia even in the late soviet period’, which is when and where our boy cut his teeth.

There has been something sinister for a while now about the unchallenged ‘populist’ status given to any rich man who buys a football club.  Since at least 1986, in fact, when Silvio Berlusconi bought AC Milan. At about the same time, Bernard Tapie was attempting to use Olympique Marseille for the same reasons: buy the love of a crowd of football supporters, in the hope that you can then buy the love of further crowds of journalists and voters. It didn’t work in France, since Tapie wasn’t quite clever enough to hide his many crooked deals, but it worked for Berlusconi, for long enough to enable him to do further damage to the vandalised brothel that is the Italian State.

British millionaires don’t want to buy themselves political careers- presumably because they are smart enough to know that there are better ways to get your mitts on power than becoming an MP. But at least two shady rich men have bought themselves security by purchasing an English football club. The dumbly uncritical British media has surpassed itself in its treatment of Roman Abramovitch: aren’t there even a few questions you want to ask about how a near-penniless accountant became a billionaire in the most violent, unrestrained asset-grab of the last hundred years?

As for Mr Mohammed Al-Fayed, owner of Fulham, the dirt has already been uncovered, by Tom Bower, who wrote an excellent biography of the man. He’s a liar, he’s a thug, he’s a racist. Among the many foul details uncovered, we learned that Al-Fayed had a particular detestation for black people, often ordering his security detail (who had suspiciously close links to certain parts of the Metropolitan Police) to eject ‘fugging black bastards’ from his premises. Bower published his book in the UK, which has strict libel laws; the multi-millionaire Mr Al-Fayed, normally the most litigious of men, has never chosen to sue him for libel. Strange. Even stranger is the fact that our newspapers’ football correspondents, those tribunes of the People’s Game, have never chosen to repeat these facts (which, given Mr Al-Fayed’s reluctance to sue, is surely what they are) in any article about good old Fulham Football Club.

A nasty phenomenon is getting nastier. Usmanov is far worse than either Al-Fayed or Abramovitch. Russia, over the last few years, has seen the systematic destruction of what had been a burgeoning free media, as a company called Gazprom has bought up dissenting news outlets, changed their editorial line to one singing the praises of a the ex-KGB man in charge of the country, and fired inconvenient journalists and editors. Well, fired the ones who didn’t mysteriously fall out of windows.  And Gazprom is owned by – Alisher Usmanov.

Do you think the football-loving MPs and celebrities of the UK will mention that Arsenal should not be bought by an animal who does things like this? Do you think British journalists will feel even a twinge of sympathy with Russian journalists, or will they merely despise the fools for trying to write about genuine threats to people’s lives when they could just be obsessing about sport?

Answers on a postcard. We’ve erected a fake populist culture in this country which is all too ready to connive at bullying the powerless, and all too suited to pampering the powerful. Why does Abramovitch own Chelsea? So that if the wheel turns in Russia and Putin or his successor try to do to Abramovitch what they did to his fellow oligarch billionaire Berezovsky, and throw him in jail he can always  rely on British diplomats to plead for him to be flown to Heathrow. You think any British Prime Minister is going to ignore the screaming front pages of every tabloid in the country? And Fayed- he has never got British citizenship, for reasons that will be entirely apparent to any reader of Bower’s work- but his ownership of Fulham greatly diminishes any chance that the authorities will ever make trouble for him.

This, by the way, is the Craig Murray text Mr Usmanov’s shyster lawyers have worked so successfully to ban:

‘Alisher Usmanov, potential Arsenal chairman, is a Vicious Thug, Criminal, Racketeer, Heroin Trafficker and Accused Rapist

I thought I should make my views on Alisher Usmanov quite plain to you. You are unlikely to see much plain talking on Usmanov elsewhere in the media becuase he has already used his billions and his lawyers in a pre-emptive strike. They have written to all major UK newspapers, including the latter:

“Mr Usmanov was imprisoned for various offences under the old Soviet regime. We wish to make it clear our client did not commit any of the offences with which he was charged. He was fully pardoned after President Mikhail Gorbachev took office. All references to these matters have now been expunged from police records . . . Mr Usmanov does not have any criminal record.”

Let me make it quite clear that Alisher Usmanov is a criminal. He was in no sense a political prisoner, but a gangster and racketeer who rightly did six years in jail. The lawyers cunningly evoke “Gorbachev”, a name respected in the West, to make us think that justice prevailed. That is completely untrue.

Usmanov’s pardon was nothing to do with Gorbachev. It was achieved through the growing autonomy of another thug, President Karimov, at first President of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic and from 1991 President of Uzbekistan. Karimov ordered the “Pardon” because of his alliance with Usmanov’s mentor, Uzbek mafia boss and major international heroin overlord Gafur Rakimov. Far from being on Gorbachev’s side, Karimov was one of the Politburo hardliners who had Gorbachev arrested in the attempted coup that was thwarted by Yeltsin standing on the tanks outside the White House.

Usmanov is just a criminal whose gangster connections with one of the World’s most corrupt regimes got him out of jail. He then plunged into the “privatisation” process at a time when gangster muscle was used to secure physical control of assets, and the alliance between the Russian Mafia and Russian security services was being formed.

Usmanov has two key alliances. He is very close indeed to President Karimov, and especially to his daughter Gulnara. It was Usmanov who engineered the 2005 diplomatic reversal in which the United States was kicked out of its airbase in Uzbekistan and Gazprom took over the country’s natural gas assets. Usmanov, as chairman of Gazprom Investholdings paid a bribe of $88 million to Gulnara Karimova to secure this. This is set out on page 366 of Murder in Samarkand.

Alisher Usmanov had risen to chair of Gazprom Investholdings because of his close personal friendship with Putin, He had accessed Putin through Putin’s long time secretary and now chef de cabinet, Piotr Jastrzebski. Usmanov and Jastrzebski were roommates at college. Gazprominvestholdings is the group that handles Gazproms interests outside Russia, Usmanov’s role is, in effect, to handle Gazprom’s bribery and sleaze on the international arena, and the use of gas supply cuts as a threat to uncooperative satellite states.

Gazprom has also been the tool which Putin has used to attack internal democracy and close down the independent media in Russia. Gazprom has bought out – with the owners having no choice – the only independent national TV station and numerous rgional TV stations, several radio stations and two formerly independent national newspapers. These have been changed into slavish adulation of Putin. Usmanov helped accomplish this through Gazprom. The major financial newspaper, Kommersant, he bought personally. He immediately replaced the editor-in-chief with a pro-Putin hack, and three months later the long-serving campaigning defence correspondent, Ivan Safronov, mysteriously fell to his death from a window.

All this, both on Gazprom and the journalist’s death, is set out in great detail here.

Usmanov is also dogged by the widespread belief in Uzbekistan that he was guilty of a particularly atrocious rape, which was covered up and the victim and others in the know disappeared. The sad thing is that this is not particularly remarkable. Rape by the powerful is an everyday hazard in Uzbekistan, again as outlined in Murder in Samarkand page 120. If anyone has more detail on the specific case involving Usmanov please add a comment.

I reported back in 2002 or 2003 in an Ambassadorial top secret telegram to the Foreign Office that Usmanov was the most likely favoured successor of President Karimov as totalitarian leader of Uzbekistan. I also outlined the Gazprom deal (before it happened) and the present by Usmanov to Putin (though in Jastrzebski’s name) of half of Mapobank, a Russian commercial bank owned by Usmanov. I will never forget the priceless reply from our Embassy in Moscow. They said that they had never even heard of Alisher Usmanov, and that Jastrzebski was a jolly nice friend of the Ambassador who would never do anything crooked.

Sadly, I expect the football authorities will be as purblind. Football now is about nothing but money, and even Arsenal supporters – as tight-knit and homespun a football community as any – can be heard saying they don’t care where the money comes from as long as they can compete with Chelsea.

I fear that is very wrong. Letting as diseased a figure as Alisher Usmanov into your club can only do harm in the long term.’

Urgent: please fax the Home Office re Pegah Emambakhsh

August 24, 2007

At the risk of turning into the needy person from hell, can I please just ask everyone to have a look at this appeal by Peter Tatchell concerning an Iranian lesbian, Pegah Emambakhsh, due to be deported back to a regime which flogs, imprisons and not infrequently executes people for the crime of having consensual sex with other adults of the same gender. (If you have problems finding the relevant article on Tatchell’s site, click ‘International’).

This is all terribly late: she is due to be shunted on to the plane this Bank Holiday Monday. I became aware of the appeal only today. It means that letters are not going to get to the Home Office in time and writing to MPs is way too tortuous a process. Have a look at Tatchell’s site, grab some talking points from his ‘sample letters’ and send off a fax, fAO: Rt Hon Jacqui Smith, RE: Pegah Emambakhsh- Proposed Deportation. Quote Reference number ref. B1191057. The fax number is 0207 035 3262.

And can I just say that I don’t share Tatchell’s politics either (shorter: more wars so long as I don’t have to fight them).  It doesn’t matter, it really doesn’t. The Iranian regime has got a lot nastier since Emambakhsh lost her last appeal against deportation in 2005, and is now following the approved Mugabe line in covering up for economic failure with public beatings and killings of selected hate groups, notably including homosexuals. In Iran, ‘repression of homosexuals’ means not ‘halfwits making poofter jokes’, not even ‘bosses firing gays’ but ‘imprisonment, flogging and occasional judicial murder’.

I was told recently that the Home Office is monitoring the blog campaign for asylum rights for Iraqi employees. Ladies and gents: hello. I hope you and your families are well. And really, putting this woman on a plane back to a place where there’s a good chance she could be jailed or flogged or hanged: It’s not necessary. It’s not acceptable. It’s not, to be blunt with you, entirely human.

Southern Iraq: are US troops moving into the ‘British’ zone?

June 20, 2007

This story has been ignored, from what I can see, by every single British newspaper and TV news programme, but if true it is highly significant. Buried away towards the end of a story in yesterday’s New York Times, we learn that American soldiers have been fighting in towns deep in the nominally ‘British-controlled’ part of Southern Iraq.

The relevant passages are (bold added where appropriate):

‘In what appeared to be a separate operation deep in the south near the Iranian border, a ferocious battle between American troops and Shiite militants left at least 20 people dead and wounded scores more, Iraqi and American officials said.

‘The clashes, in Amara and Majjar al-Kabir, a pair of mostly Shiite towns just north of Basra, started early Monday. They were sparked by raids on what American officials described as a secret network involved in transporting “lethal aid” from Iran to Iraq, particularly deadly roadside bombs known as explosively formed penetrators, or E.F.P.’s.

‘Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, an American military spokesman in Iraq, said American troops have intensified their focus on finding and dismantling places where those weapons are built, like the towns raided Monday, because the weapons were especially hard to stop at the border. “It’s hard to catch because they are shipped as components, not completed weapons,” he said.

‘According to officials aligned with the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr in Basra, the fighting involved members of Mr. Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia. The battle appeared to be the largest clash with Mr. Sadr’s loosely affiliated gunmen since the start of the new American security plan in February.

‘In addition to the 20 dead, six suspects were wounded and one was detained, officials said. A hospital official said that at least 60 people were wounded. ‘

These towns weren’t on any ‘border’ between American and British forces, so we’re not looking at a case of hot pursuit. The two towns mentioned had a significant British military presence until recently. Amara had a British infantry battalion stationed in the town until 25 August 2006,  and the UK occupation is described in some detail in Rory Stewart’s excellent memoir ‘Occupational Hazards’. Majar al-Kabir is where six British Military Policemen were killed in June 2003, and it too was frequently patrolled by UK forces. Basra, as the NYT notes, is only a few miles from both towns, and – as it doesn’t note- contains several thousand British troops. So why did US troops raid Amara and Majar? 

We can discount the possibility that the NYT invented the story:  a named US Army spokesman is on the record saying that US troops have been fighting in both towns.  It is possible that this was a raid mounted by a joint team of British and US forces, and that the US Colonel forgot, or ‘forgot’, to mention the Brits. But if this was truly an entirely American raid, there are several possibilities, all highly disturbing.

Did the US ask the British to raid targets in the South and get a refusal? Did they then ask for, and get, British military approval for a raid by US forces? Did they simply go ahead and tell the British forces that they would be carrying out the raid? If the British refused to carry out the raid themselves, was this because there were insufficient British troops in the area to do so? Or because they thought that the raid was unnecessary, or would provoke the local civilian population?

If this was simply a raid carried out by a joint force of British and American special forces, then it is another piece of evidence that the war in the South is increasing in intensity, and that what appears to be Gordon Brown’s favoured strategy (remain as an occupier in Southern Iraq, whilst drawing down the number of troops deployed, as a sop to British public opinion) is unworkable: you can’t get away with PR stunts in war, not if the enemy doesn’t want you to.

The other possibilities are even worse: all of them imply that the US military have become impatient with the British conduct of operations in Southern Iraq, and that they have taken matters into their own hands.

 UPDATE: One question I should have asked but didn’t:  is the formal responsibility for military backup to Iraqi government forces in Amara and Majar the preserve of the British after the withdrawal? Or is it in a sort of legal no-man’s land, meaning that there is nothing formally preventing the Americans from moving forces in?  This is the kind of question that seems like legal petifoggery but is actually vital to understanding how armies operate. If the Americans feel that they can’t move into towns near the biggest British base without sparking a major political row, they won’t. If they don’t feel that- and if they think that British troops have been insufficiently aggressive in dealing with insurgents, as a lot of US officers do think- then they will.

The Law Lords and Baha Mousa

June 13, 2007

The Law Lords have ruled that the killing of Baha Mousa in the custody of British troops is indeed covered by the Human Rights Act and that there must be an independent inquiry. Whilst this was the best ruling that they could have made,  it is hardly good news. The Government- and it is the Government, not the hated ‘military’, that must take decisions of this kind- has been dragged to the point it should have reached when Mousa was killed over four years ago.

If a foreign detainee dies in the custody of British troops, we need a full and clear inquiry as soon as possible, and criminal charges must be pressed wherever the evidence merits it. With the death of Mousa, we had a Court Martial four years after the event, which found that one Junior Non-Commissioned Officer (a Corporal, who would normally be in charge of eight soldiers and paid about fourteen or fifteen grand) had kicked, but not killed Mousa, and that no-one else in uniform was to blame for anything at all. This stinks. 

Other aspects of the case probably  stink as badly.  It’s hard to comment in detail, since the dopey British media have not covered the case with any real journalistic assiduity:- op-ed writers on the Guardian and Independent have bleated Mousa’s name as a justification for their own belief that all British soldiers are murderers, whilst the Mail and Telegraph have wound themselves up into a fury over the supposed martyrdom of the most senior officer acquitted by the Court Martial, but we haven’t had any detailed reporting of the trial itself in the newspapers.

But a few facts have seeped out. There has been a disturbing BBC ‘Panorama’ documentary, which seems to confirm my initial instincts. I felt when I first read about the case that a junior NCO could only have killed Mousa if his death had been the result of a beating of an hour or so before he was ‘processed’ as a detainee. The longer he was held, the more officers and Senior NCOs would be involved in controlling his detention and the harder it would be for one junior rank to gain access to the prisoner.  That does not necessarily implicate the Battalion CO of the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment, Col. Jorge Mendonca, but it does mean that serious questions have to be asked of him and of a whole series of officers below him in the chain of command. ‘Panorama’ made a number of serious allegations against one particular Lieutenant commanding a rifle platoon. I would like to know the roles played by that man’s Company Commander, Company Second-in-Command and Company Sergeant Major, as well as the Battalion Intelligence Officer, and the Brigade Intelligence staff who were apparently present at the time.

One of the arguments offered in defence by the lawyers of Colonel Jorge Mendonca was that a highly questionable policy of ‘softening’ detainees was put in place, against his objections, by higher (un-named) authority. This policy, Mendonca’s defence seems to have argued, was not expected to kill detainees, but some soldiers, having been allowed to beat detainees, ‘went too far’ following the killing of a popular officer, and killed Mousa. Now this is a credible, internally consistent story; one can imagine how it would happen. We need to find out if it actually did happen: either Mendonca is lying when he says it did or the MoD is lying when it says it did not.

If such a policy was in place, who authorised it? If someone in a position of authority ordered British soldiers to maltreat captives, that would be  very serious; and if the civilian politicians in charge of the uniformed military connived at such a policy, for example by not insisting on the highest standards in detainee treatment, that would be more serious still. There has been surprisingly little follow-up on the ‘Independent’s recent allegations that a British Army lawyer, Colonel Nicholas Mercer, quarrelled with the (civilian) Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, over the standards required for the treatment of Iraqi civilians. According to the Independent, which has backed its story with a number of leaked emails, Colonel Mercer argued that Iraqi detainees be treated according to the Human Rights Act, whereas Goldsmith, backed by a number of senior civilian lawyers at the MoD and FCO, argued for what was described as a ‘more pragmatic’ policy. Pragmatic, practical: we need to be very afraid when we hear these terms being applied to interrogations.  

Essentially, the Law Lords’ judgement confirms Mercer’s belief that Iraqi civilians detained by British troops are covered by the Human Rights Act, which has rather more stringent protections than those offered to detained combatants by the Geneva Conventions. (The Law Lords also ruled that another Iraqis who were not detained by British troops but were shot by them or otherwise came into contact with them during the course of patrols were not to be treated according the HRA’s provisions.  Essentially, the Lords accepted that hostile or neutral civilians encountering the British Army on foreign soil were ‘extraterritorial’ but that civilians detained on British bases were subject to all the protections of the law. This opens up another set of questions, about how the Army ought to, and how it does, treat civilians and combatants encountered outside its bases, which we will have to deal with elsewhere.)

If this did happen, it would not be the first time that the military showed a greater attachment to the rule of law than their political masters: in 1972, Ted Heath and his Attorney General instructed the then head of the Army, Field Marshall Sir Michael Carver, that his men could shoot IRA suspects on sight even if they were unarmed, only to have Carver refuse to issue the order on the grounds that it would be unlawful. 

But who knows? Perhaps the senior military really did originate a policy of brutality, with the political leadership blissfully unaware: the Secretary of State for Defence in 2003 was Geoff Hoon, who revealed to Lord Justice Hutton that he had rather a gift for not knowing the policy of his own Department.  Or perhaps this really was a case of the lower ranks, abetted by one or two junior or middle-ranking officers, running amok in the wake of British casualties. We do need to know: which is why one’s heart does not exactly leap at the news that the Law Lords have stated that there must be an independent judicial enquiry.

  My prediction is that this inquiry, like previous ones, will do a fine job at apportioning blame among the lower ranks and see no faults committed by their seniors. This is not entirely bad- several soldiers kicked Mousa to death or connived at his beating, and I would like to see them all serve jail terms, not just one scapegoated thug as at present. But I would also like to learn if there was a deliberate policy of brutality against detainees, and if so who instituted it. Here one can expect the usual veil of ambiguous phrases drawn over the higher ranks. Will lawyers criticise lawyers, when they can find that all wrongdoing was the fault of  some 18-year old soldier from Manchester?

 More generally, what system should be in place to investigate deaths in British custody? We need to realise, first of all, that Mousa’s is – so far as I can determine- the only reported suspicious death in the custody of British troops in over four years of the occupation of Southern Iraq. Given the deaths of dozens of British troops in Southern Iraq in the same period, this is no mean achievement. Any system investigating military actions should probably have soldiers as all or at least some of its investigators: any investigative team consisting entirely of civilian police officers or lawyers would have very great difficulties in understanding the language and procedures of soldiers, whether they were guilty or innocent of any crimes. A Court Martial is the system that soldiers expect to be tried under.  There might be a case for creating a new agency, not the Royal Military Police, to investigate allegations against soldiers. There might be a case for trying cases in civilian Criminal courts, not Court Martials. But we should scrap the investigative role of the RMP, or the judicial role of Courts Martial, only if it could be proved that these institutions themselves, and not their present funding or managerial regimes, or meddling by higher authority, were to blame for the contemptible errors in the Mousa case.

(Parenthetically, the Attorney General managed to get one 22-year old soldier committed for trial at the Old Bailey for the alleged murder of an Iraqi civilian, only for the Judge to throw the case out with contemptuous remarks about the weakness of the case. Why do I link to the Telegraph as a news source for this story? Because the Guardian and the Independent seem not to have found it particularly newsworthy, for unfathomable reasons; the Indy’s in-house right-wing op-ed columnist gave the case a mention but it won’t be figuring too prominently in the writings of Deborah Orr or Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. UPDATE 14th June: Quite untrue with regard to the Guardian, as I should have been more careful to check; apparently true regarding the Independent. My apologies to the news editors of the Guardian, should they read this. The Guardian’s op-ed writers seem not to have let the Kevin Williams trial fiasco upset their cherished world-views, on the other hand.)

Again, we need an Inquiry to tell us why it took over four years to bring charges in what must have been a rather simple case: there were, or should have been, clear records of who was on duty when and who had, or controlled, access to Mousa in the hours that he was killed.  Was there genuine incompetence or the willed variety? Again, any such investigation is going to mean criticism of the higher ranks of the Civil Service, probably the command ranks of the Army, and quite possibly of the Cabinet Ministers set over them, so one shouldn’t hold out especially high hopes of this ‘Independent Judicial Inquiry’ achieving great things.

Put soldiers in the midst of a foreign, partly hostile populace and you will need systems to prevent them killing detainees, and systems to properly investigate such killings if they do occur. This is not merely true but obvious. But, looking upon our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, one begins to despair when one sees the ability of this country’s leaders to ignore even the most basic precepts of good sense.