Never forget British war crimes : Camp Breadbasket, Iraq

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Camp Breadbasket
Camp Breadbasket was a humanitarian aid camp on the outskirts of Basra that was set up by the British Army after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It stored various humanitarian supplies that were used for local distribution, and as such it became a frequent target of looting by locals. On 15 May 2003, the commanding officer at the camp decided to punish any Iraqis who were found looting by ordering his men to capture them and force them to carry out manual labour around the facility. After 20 Iraqis were captured that morning, the soldiers decided to improvise their own forms of punishment. Various photographs documenting the torture of these prisoners were made public in 2005, but they have since faded from public consciousness, and even at the time they did not have the impact that similar photographs from America’s Abu Ghraib prison had (which also documented the torture of Iraqi prisoners using similar techniques; in particular, sexual humiliation).

The following quote is extracted from a report by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on British war crimes in Iraq, which was published on 8 December 2020; it details a number of serious abuses that British soldiers committed against Iraqi prisoners at Camp Breadbasket:

“In one well-known example, the information available indicates that members of UK armed forces committed the war crime of torture and inhuman/cruel treatment against at least 7 Iraqi victims detained on suspicion of looting at Camp Breadbasket, near Basra, on 15 May 2003. According to the information available, the victims were subjected to stress positions, severe beatings, and sexual violence. The ‘Camp Breadbasket incident’ was widely reported on after photos depicting detainee abuse were released to the media in January 2005. The photographs documented Iraqis being forced to simulate oral and anal sex, as well as a man tied up in a cargo net and suspended from a forklift truck. The Victim Statement of PIL 22 similarly depicts treatment involving protracted humiliation and continuous beating with fists, boots, sticks and aerials. As set out below, one victim was reportedly subjected to rape”.

These are some of the less graphic photographs in question:According to the ICC report, these abuses “only came to light when one of the soldiers involved in taking trophy photographs had the photographs developed in a civilian shop and the shop assistant reported the conduct to civilian police, who made an arrest”. In total, five different soldiers took 22 photographs documenting the torture of prisoners at Camp Breadbasket.

The ICC report describes the sexual violence that was inflicted on prisoners at Camp Breadbasket as follows:

“The information available provides a reasonable basis to believe that members of UK armed forces committed the war crimes of other forms of sexual violence in one incident against, at a minimum, seven detainees at Camp Breadbasket in May 2003 who were also victims of torture as described above, and furthermore subjected one of those detainees to rape. According to the detailed account of one victim, PIL 16, the violence started when he entered a room where one British soldier “was performing oral sex on” another soldier. PIL 16 was allegedly forced to the floor under the threat of a knife, brutally undressed, and raped by the two soldiers in turn. After the rape, the victim alleges that the soldiers started to punch him and cut his arms with the knife. He was then taken to the hospital and subsequently released. PIL 16 complained that his anus bled for a week and that he suffered from panic attacks as a result of the incident”.

“As noted earlier, photographs widely circulated in the media at the time also showed other Iraqis being forced to simulate oral and anal sexual intercourse. The level of severity of such conduct is comparable in gravity to conduct constituting the war crime of “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment” under article 8(2)(c)(ii) of the Statute. The sexual and gender-based component of the conduct just described, nonetheless, is more accurately reflected as the crime of “other forms of sexual violence”, given the nature of the conduct and its context, its manner of commission, and impact. Moreover, the conduct appears to have been inflicted with the specific intention to sexually humiliate the detainees concerned, in order to cause offence, distress, and shame”.

“There is a reasonable basis to believe that the acts of rape and/or other forms of sexual violence set out in this section occurred in a coercive environment, in which the detainees experienced fear of violence, duress, and psychological oppression. Furthermore, these acts occurred in circumstances that negated the detainee’s ability to consent, and in some instances by force, when the detainee was restrained in a vulnerable position”.

No one has been prosecuted for the aforementioned rape, despite the fact that the ICC concluded that that there is a reasonable basis to believe that it occurred. The victim was 18-years-old at the time, and he tried to commit suicide after the incident.

His witness statement from 2011 recounts how he walked in on the two soldiers, after which one of them pulled him into the room and punched him in the face, while the other soldier blocked the exit. This is his description of his subsequent ordeal: “The man who had punched me was stronger than me, he grabbed me by the neck and kicked my legs from under me and I fell to the floor. I fell on my back. He took out a knife and held it against my neck… I was terrified that they were going to kill me at this point. The other soldier started to rip my trousers down… I started screaming. He then pulled my underwear down. All this time the other man was holding me down and putting the knife against my throat. They then flipped me on to my stomach”. He states that both soldiers then took it in turns to rape him, before slashing him with the knife, leaving him in “unbearable” agony. When he left the room, other soldiers helped him to get medical attention for the knife wounds.

Only three British soldiers who were involved in abuses at Camp Breadbasket were jailed following a court martial in 2005: L/Cpl Mark Cooley, 25, received a two year sentence; Cpl Daniel Kenyon, 33, received an 18 month sentence; and L/Cpl Darren Larkin, 30, received a 140 day sentence.

The Independent revealed in 2005 that family members of the prisoners who were being held at Camp Breadbasket were brutally beaten by British soldiers when they showed up at the facility to ask about their loved ones.

There is substantial evidence that torture was systematically used by British soldiers against Iraqi prisoners. The Independent reported on 20 January 2005: “The abuse of Iraqi civilians by British troops was more widespread than the torture and sexual humiliation allegedly carried out by three members of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers [at Camp Breadbasket], a court martial was told yesterday. An Army Lieutenant Colonel revealed prisoner abuse had become so frequent in British-occupied Iraq that he had been forced to issue specific orders insisting soldiers should not assault civilians and that they should be treated “with humanity and dignity at all times”’. An investigation by BBC Panorama in 2019 unearthed several cases of torture carried out by British soldiers in Iraq which the government had covered up (including cases of prisoners being tortured to death). The ICC report notes “the wider body of findings by other public authorities and institutions in the UK that hundreds of Iraqi detainees were subjected to conditions of detention and practices which amounted to inhuman or degrading treatment”, and recognises that its own findings “may not be fully representative of the overall scale of the victimisation”.