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Last Updated: Wednesday, 15 February 2006, 19:15 GMT
The return of Abu Ghraib
By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs correspondent, BBC News website

Images of suspected Abu Ghraib abuse. Courtesy SBS television.
The images come amid tensions between Muslims and the West
Abu Ghraib has come back to haunt the US government.

The latest pictures from the prison are another disaster for the image of the US presence in Iraq (formally an occupation at the time the photos were probably taken, in 2003).

They could hardly have come out at a worse time, amid the furore over the Danish cartoons and immediately after the emergence of a video showing British troops beating up Iraqi protesters.

The US government is taking refuge in declaring that these are images from some time ago, refer to isolated incidents which are shocking but which have been investigated and punished and which are no longer taking place.

The pictures appear genuine in that some are very similar to the ones upon which convictions have already taken place. There is the now familiar and ghastly crop of violence, threats (dogs again), hooding and sexual humiliation. Indeed the apparent sexual thrill given to the photo-taker/s is one of the most disturbing elements. One picture shows a prisoner baring her breasts, presumably under compulsion.

(Update: There is one photo which shows a body with a major cavity in the chest. It now appears that this was wound sustained in an insurgent mortar attack on the prison.)

There are no proper explanations for how the victims died, though the Australian channel that showed them said they did die at the prison, apparently during a riot and killed by guards quelling it. One was said by the channel to have died in an interrogation.

The latest pictures from the prison are another disaster for the image of the US presence in Iraq

One picture showing a man with cuts to his lower face and throat appears to refer to an incident that appears in the official military inquiry. This man, the report said, was resisting a transfer and was "pushed against the wall".

Then the military police "noticed blood coming from under his hood and they discovered the laceration on his chin". Medical help was given.

This is consistent with the photo, which shows the injured man being treated. The report said that it could not be determined whether "reasonable force" had been used or not.


The images appear to come from the CD compiled by one of the perpetrators, Corporal Charles Graner, who was given a 10-year jail sentence (his girlfriend Lynndie England, another prominent figure in the photos, got three years).

Spc Charles Graner
Charles Graner was jailed for 10 years in January 2005

Graner had given the CD as a souvenir to a colleague, military policeman Joseph Darby, and Darby, horrified at what he saw, handed it in.

However, only some of the pictures on the CD got published.

They first came out on CBS in the US. The rest were shown to members of Congress, who were even more horrified.

US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said they showed scenes that were "blatantly sadistic, cruel and inhuman".

These other pictures - photos and four videos - remained in the hands of the US Army's Criminal Investigative Division and it is these which seem to be the ones which have appeared on the SBS channel in Australia.

Court case

They were the subject of a court case last September in which the judge ordered them to be released. However they were not, because of an appeal by the US authorities.

Somehow they have now leaked.

In the case, the American Civil Liberties Union argued for their release under the Freedom of Information Act.

They could hardly have come out at a worse time, amid the furore over the Danish cartoons and immediately after the emergence of a video showing British troops beating up Iraqi protesters
The US government said they should be kept secret on the grounds that they showed prisoner humiliation. This actually refers not to the treatment shown but to the fact that the Geneva Convention prohibits the exposure of prisoners to public humiliation and curiosity. The government also argued that they would be used by US enemies.

New York Federal Judge Alvin Hellerstien said: "The balancing analysis weighs in favour of disclosure in the present case."

He said the Freedom of Information Act "advances values important to our society, transparency and accountability in government".

He ruled that the prisoners' identities could be protected by having their faces obscured. And as for the argument that publication would help terrorists, he said this: "The terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan do not need pretexts for their barbarism."

Only an appeal by the US government held up the release of the pictures. Their emergence now could unlock the safe holding the rest.


The images are also a reminder that unanswered questions remain about the abuses at Abu Ghraib, the main being how far up the chain of command the abusive behaviour went.

Janis Karpinski addressing The Commonwealth Club of California on What Really Happened at Abu Ghraib? in April 2005
Prison commander Janis Karpinski was disciplined over Abu Ghraib
Although the commander of the prison at the time, Brigadier Janis Karpinski, was demoted to colonel, General Geoffrey Miller, the man she blamed for introducing abusive methods and who came to Abu Ghraib from Guantanamo Bay, has not been charged and has taken refuge in silence.

He refused to testify in the court martial of two dog handlers accused of intimidating prisoners about whether the use of dogs was approved behaviour.

Defence lawyers accused Gen Miller of not responding in order to protect his superiors, the most senior of whom, Donald Rumsfeld, had himself approved the threat of dogs in a memo in 2002 which was later withdrawn.


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