LONDON – The conviction of three soldiers by a military court for abusing Iraqi prisoners is seen to have put the British military on trial. But reports on the way the trial has been conducted put Britain’s judicial system itself on trial.
The three soldiers were convicted by a British military court at a base in Osnabruck, Germany, Wednesday for "brutal," "cruel," and "revolting" abuse of prisoners in Iraq. That meant stripping and beating them, and forcing prisoners to simulate oral and anal sex, while smiling into cameras and giving the thumbs-up sign.
For this, they face a maximum of two years in prison.
They were convicted on the strength of photographs taken by 20-year-old soldier Gary Bartlam who was convicted by a military court earlier and given a 10-year prison sentence. Taking photographs of the torture was apparently considered a far more serious crime than the torture itself.
But Bartlam’s sentence was then reduced to 18 months after four assault charges against him were dropped in return for giving testimony against the other soldiers. In the end, no soldier involved will be in prison very long.
Bartlam is serving a sentence for taking the pictures not because he had exposed an abuse, but because the pictures were considered by the military court to have encouraged other soldiers to engage in abuse. Bartlam confessed in court that his photographs had encouraged abuse by other soldiers in the Milan platoon of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers.
Some of the photographs include pictures of soldiers laughing and cheering at the sex shows and the scenes of abuse.
Judge advocate Michael Hunter told the military court: "Anyone with a shred of decency would be revolted by what is contained in those pictures."
But Bartlam was not gathering evidence of abuse. For him, these were trophy pictures to take home. He did. It was left to a girl who saw the photographs at a shop in Tamworth in Staffordshire (about 100 miles north of London) to be shocked and inform military bosses. That led to Bartlam’s detention and later the inquiry.
Reports from the military court proceedings in Germany show that Bartlam was late in Iraq, and thought he had missed the action. He therefore took the pictures, and himself engaged in "one cruel" and "two indecent" acts to be able to show that he had done something in Iraq.
The prisoners forced into torture and humiliating sex shows were no more than occasional looters in the days immediately after the invasion of Iraq two years ago. Acting Major Dan Taylor had ordered his men to "work hard" the looters in an operation named Ali Baba. After being abused, the looters were released.
Sergeant Major Wilton Brown gave evidence that Taylor had ordered his men to give the looters a "thrashing." That led to the beating and the "beasting" of prisoners. And yet the inquiry has failed to take action against any of the senior officers of the unit.
The military has said acting-Major Taylor would not face a court martial because "it would not be in the service or public interest."
On the contrary, Taylor was promoted to the rank of full major. Lt. Col. David Paterson, who was commander of the battalion, was promoted to full colonel. Brown was promoted to regimental sergeant major.
The orders these officers gave had, among other things, contravened the Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners.
Major Taylor gave evidence before the military court that he had briefed Col. Paterson that the looters detained would be "worked hard." The colonel gave evidence that he had not been properly briefed. He said he had not asked for any "novel solutions" to the looting.
Major Taylor then told the military court that he had destroyed his records of the events just two weeks before the hearing of the military court began. He denied that the records would have proved that he was not telling the truth.
But the photographs did tell the truth. Bartlam was taken into custody by the military police the very night the girl in Tamworth alerted them. He was released following the detention and sent to a military photography course.
The army now says that decision was "unfortunate" but insists that for Bartlam, "photographing people was a core skill."
Among the questions raised by this course of supposed justice is one asked by Bartlam’s mother: "If [his photographs] were so wrong, why did they send him on a course?"