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Apr 04 2007

Iran and the captured British sailors

One cannot view the reaction of the British and US governments and media to the capture of 15 British naval personnel by Iran without feeling even more cynical about the double standards that are now taken for granted.

It is being simply assumed here that the British government’s claim that their people were not in Iranian waters is true, without any further discussion. Bush, itching for a reason to bomb Iran, has even called them ‘hostages.’ He says this with a straight face even as the fate of five Iranian officials captured by the US January 11, 2007 remain unknown:

Even though high-level Iraqi officials have publicly called for their release, for all practical purposes, the Iranians have disappeared into the U.S.-sanctioned “coalition detention” system that has been criticized as arbitrary and even illegal by many experts on international law.
. . .
One diplomat was released, but the other five men remain in U.S. custody and have not been formally charged with a crime.

“They have disappeared. I don’t know if they’ve gone into the enemy combatant system,” said Gary Sick, an Iran expert at Columbia University who served in the White House under former President Jimmy Carter. “Nobody on the outside knows.”

Patrick Cockburn, writing in the British newspaper The Independent on April 3, 2007 reports that the capture of the British naval personnel may have been an angry Iranian retaliation for a botched attempt by the US to capture the Iranian equivalents of the heads of the CIA and MI6, who were visiting northern Iraq at that time the US took into custody the six much lower level officials. The idea of this being a retaliation seems a bit far-fetched to me, given the time lag between the two events, but I had been unaware of the more important story about a possible US attempt to capture two high-ranking visiting Iranian dignitaries on what appears to be a visit sanctioned by the Iraqi government, since the two of them had just had a meeting with the Iraqi president.

There are also doubts about the British government’s claims about their sailors not having gone into Iranian waters, such as those voiced by a former British Ambassador Craig Murray, who also once headed the British Foreign Office’s maritime section and is thus very familiar with the ways that maritime boundaries are determined. Murray gives a detailed explanation of the problems with identifying maritime boundaries and how they are arrived at. He concludes:

But what about the map the Ministry of Defence produced on Tuesday, with territorial boundaries set out by a clear red line, and the co-ordinates of the incident marked in relation to it?

I have news for you. Those boundaries are fake. They were drawn up by the MoD. They are not agreed or recognised by any international authority.

To put it at its most charitable, they are a potential boundary. It is accepted practice, where no boundary exists, to work by a rule-of-thumb idea of where a boundary, based on a median line between the two coasts, might be.

But to elevate that to a hard and fast boundary, and then base a major international incident on being a few hundred yards one side or the other, is out of order.

There are a few exceptions to the coverage of the British naval captives as suffering unspeakable horrors, especially in some of the British press. Ronan Bennett writes in the Guardian:

Faye Turney’s letters bear the marks of coercion, while parading the prisoners in front of TV cameras was demeaning. But the outrage expressed by ministers and leader writers is curious given the recent record of the “coalition of the willing” on the way it deals with prisoners.

Turney may have been “forced to wear the hijab”, as the Daily Mail noted with fury, but so far as we know she has not been forced into an orange jumpsuit. Her comrades have not been shackled, blindfolded, forced into excruciating physical contortions for long periods, or denied liquids and food. As far as we know they have not had the Bible spat on, torn up or urinated on in front of their faces. They have not had electrodes attached to their genitals or been set on by attack dogs.

They have not been hung from a forklift truck and photographed for the amusement of their captors. They have not been pictured naked and smeared in their own excrement. They have not been bundled into a CIA-chartered plane and secretly “rendered” to a basement prison in a country where torturers are experienced and free to do their worst.

As far as we know, Turney and her comrades are not being “worked hard”, the euphemism coined by one senior British army officer for the abuse of prisoners at Camp Bread Basket. And as far as we know all 15 are alive and well, which is more than can be said for Baha Mousa, the hotel receptionist who, in 2003, was unfortunate enough to have been taken into custody by British troops in Basra. There has of course been a court martial and it exonerated the soldiers of Mousa’s murder. So we can only assume that his death – by beating – was self-inflicted; yet another instance of “asymmetrical warfare”, the description given by US authorities to the deaths of the Guantánamo detainees who hanged themselves last year.
. . .
With disregard for the rights of prisoners now entrenched at the very top of government, it comes as no surprise that abuses committed by rank and file soldiers go virtually unremarked. No one in politics or the media dares censure the military, surely today the only institution still immune from any sort of criticism, even when soldiers are brutal and murderous towards captives.

Monty Python’s Terry Jones writes with biting sarcasm:

I share the outrage expressed in the British press over the treatment of our naval personnel accused by Iran of illegally entering their waters. It is a disgrace. We would never dream of treating captives like this – allowing them to smoke cigarettes, for example, even though it has been proven that smoking kills. And as for compelling poor servicewoman Faye Turney to wear a black headscarf, and then allowing the picture to be posted around the world – have the Iranians no concept of civilised behaviour? For God’s sake, what’s wrong with putting a bag over her head? That’s what we do with the Muslims we capture: we put bags over their heads, so it’s hard to breathe.
. . .
It is also unacceptable that these British captives should be made to talk on television and say things that they may regret later. If the Iranians put duct tape over their mouths, like we do to our captives, they wouldn’t be able to talk at all. Of course they’d probably find it even harder to breathe – especially with a bag over their head – but at least they wouldn’t be humiliated.

And what’s all this about allowing the captives to write letters home saying they are all right? It’s time the Iranians fell into line with the rest of the civilised world: they should allow their captives the privacy of solitary confinement. That’s one of the many privileges the US grants to its captives in Guantánamo Bay.

The true mark of a civilised country is that it doesn’t rush into charging people whom it has arbitrarily arrested in places it’s just invaded. The inmates of Guantánamo, for example, have been enjoying all the privacy they want for almost five years, and the first inmate has only just been charged. What a contrast to the disgraceful Iranian rush to parade their captives before the cameras!

What’s more, it is clear that the Iranians are not giving their British prisoners any decent physical exercise. The US military make sure that their Iraqi captives enjoy PT. This takes the form of exciting “stress positions”, which the captives are expected to hold for hours on end so as to improve their stomach and calf muscles. A common exercise is where they are made to stand on the balls of their feet and then squat so that their thighs are parallel to the ground. This creates intense pain and, finally, muscle failure. It’s all good healthy fun and has the bonus that the captives will confess to anything to get out of it.
. . .
What is so appalling is the underhand way in which the Iranians have got her “unhappy and stressed”. She shows no signs of electrocution or burn marks and there are no signs of beating on her face. This is unacceptable. If captives are to be put under duress, such as by forcing them into compromising sexual positions, or having electric shocks to their genitals, they should be photographed, as they were in Abu Ghraib.

All prisoners, whoever they are and by whomever they are held, have the right to be treated humanely and with dignity, brought to trial speedily, and receive a fair and open trial. This applies to the naval personnel captured by Iran and people being held by the US and Britain in the ‘war on terror.’ Bennett and Jones are simply stating the obvious: By the way that they themselves have treated prisoners, Cheney/Bush and Blair have forfeited the right to sanctimoniously preach to others about how prisoners be treated.

POST SCRIPT: I’ll be talking about atheism on WCPN 90.3

Today (Wednesday, August 4, 2007) from 9:00-10:00 am I’ll be on WCPN 90.3′s Sound of Ideas to talk about atheism. A fellow guest on the show will be Lori Lipman Brown, director of the Secular Coalition for America, who is also speaking today at the City Club.

You can also listen online (though the Safari browser does not work for this) and there will be a podcast.

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