International Papers

“Gentleman Occupiers” No More

The international press looks at Britain’s Abu Ghraib-style prisoner abuse scandal.

Britain is now facing its own version of the Abu Ghraib scandal. European dailies are expressing revulsion over newly published photos showing British soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners. The response was nearly the same across the board, with the London tabloids leading the charge: “Brute Camp,” read the headline in the Sun, while the conservative Daily Mailoffered “Britain’s Shame.”

The alleged abuses took place at Basra’s Breadbasket Camp in May 2003, when British soldiers were attempting to put an end to looting of a food depot. Prosecutors in the “Ali Baba” trial—so named after the operation that netted the looting suspects—released the 22 images, which appear show a variety of abuses ranging from naked prisoners being forced to simulate anal sex, to a soldier standing with both feet atop a bound Iraqi detainee, pressing his head into the ground with a stick.

It’s not the first time photos of British soldiers allegedly abusing Iraqis have surfaced. This happened last year, as the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, but those photos turned out to be fake, costing Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan his job. This second batch of pictures appears to be genuine by almost all accounts.

The Daily Telegraph of Australia—not to be confused with the London daily of the same name—carried details of how events unfolded at Camp Breadbasket:

Camp quartermaster Major Dan Taylor organised soldiers in groups of four and six, armed with SA80 assault rifles and long wooden poles used to support camouflage netting, to patrol the perimeter early in the morning. If they captured looters, they were told they should ‘work them hard’ on menial tasks, including returning the stolen property.

While the trial prosecutor has conceded that the order to “work them hard” was illegal, apparently that doesn’t let the three soldiers—all of them members of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers—off the hook.

British soldiers serving in Iraq have long prided themselves on following stricter rules dealing with locals—be they civilians, enemy combatants, or prisoners—than their American counterparts. These pictures are certain to dent their reputation, even if it is shown that abuse was never so widespread as suspected in Abu Ghraib. “It may not be Abu Ghraib, but it does dispel some popular myths: that the English are the gentlemen occupiers and that they are a civilizing corrective to the American war machine,” opines Germany’s English-language Spiegel Online.

Mainland European papers reacted similarly. The photos “take your breath away,” wrote Germany’s right-leaning Die Welt, while Die Tageszeitungthought it “highly unlikely” that the troops’ local commander was unaware of what was going on. (German translations via BBC monitoring.)

The Financial Times draws a contrast between the way London and Washington have handled the affairs. In the paper’s view, London comes out on top: “Unlike the Abu Ghraib abuses, there was no attempt by Britain’s politicians to relax the rules of war, nor any dilatoriness in investigating what had happened,” says the paper.

Still, the FT calls for more questions to be asked further up the chain of command. “If overstretched soldiers were responsible, those who ordered them into battle must explain why. … The role of officers in command on the ground alleged to have instructed their troops to deter looters by working them ‘hard’ must be investigated,” the paper says.

And the Independent suggests the Brits have little to be proud of vis-à-vis the Americans: “In Britain, there may never have been an investigation of Iraqi prisoner abuse that led to the court martial of four British soldiers in Germany this week had it not been for the action of an alert photo shop assistant.” (The abuse came to light when a soldier took his mementos to be developed back home in Staffordshire, England. The shop assistant promptly called the cops.)

Moreover, a comment in the Guardian attempts to dispel the “bad apples” theory: “In fact there is clear evidence of systematic abuse,” writes a public interest lawyer petitioning the government to investigate other incidents.