If you thought torture went out of fashion with the end of the Middle Ages …

January 11, 2021 12:27 pm Published by Leave your thoughts

Article by John Green

The present and ongoing Undercover Policing Enquiry into the use of police spies to infiltrate a whole number of perfectly legal, non-violent progressive organisations is revealing a hidden web of surveillance operations that have targetted British citizens involved in legitimate democratic activities over decades. As disturbing as this is, it is relatively benign compared with the history of the government’s involvement in the incarceration without trial and torture of foreign as well as Northern Irish citizens.

If anyone today mentions the word torture most of us will think perhaps of the Middle Ages, dungeons, the Inquisition and thumbscrews but hardly in terms of the complicity in torture of our own modern-day governments in the United Kingdom. Many would probably be surprised to learn that Britain has in fact tortured or been involved in torture on a regular basis throughout our history right up to the present day. It has, though, been very much a covert activity with the complicity of politicians at the highest level.

The most recent cases of Britain’s complicity in torture are those associated with the so-called ‘war on terror’ unleashed in response to the attack on the twin towers in New York. As a result, many innocent individuals, largely of Middle-Eastern origin were arrested and kidnapped by foreign security services acting on tip-offs from MI5 or the CIA. A whole number of these were then flown in CIA-chartered planes, often using British airports, to secret detention centres where they were routinely tortured. This process had the euphemistic title of ‘extraordinary rendition’.

The British Foreign Office has consistently denied any knowledge of UK airspace or airports being used in this process although there is sufficient evidence now available to prove that it did take place and that Tony Blair knew that it did. The then Foreign Secretary in Blair’s government, Jack Straw, dismissed any questions about rendition as based on wild conspiracy theories.

Modern day torturing has its roots in the Second World War, as revealed in Ian Cobain’s investigatory book, Cruel Britainnia – a secret history of torture. At the outset of the war, interrogation centres were set up in a joint venture by the military and secret services. One of these clandestine interrogation centres, known as the ‘London Cage’ was located in a highly exclusive location: a row of Victorian mansions in Kensington Palace Gardens. Here prisoners were beaten, deprived of sleep, forced to adopt stress positions for days at a time and threatened with death. It was just one of several similar interrogation centres that operated throughout the war and even up to three years thereafter in complete secrecy.

After the war ended in 1945, similar interrogation centres were established in west Germany where even more brutal forms of torture were used. In 1945, the hot war immediately morphed into the cold war with a new enemy – the Soviet Union – and some of those tortured and abused in these British-run camps were former Soviet soldiers, German communists and some who had already been incarcerated and tortured under under the nazis.

One of the worst of Britain’s interrogation centres, Cobain reveals, was that based in Bad Nenndorf, near Hanover. It would not only be used to incarcerate former members of the SS

but civilian nazi officials, diplomats, scientists and journalists. Increasingly, from 1946 onwards, it was reorientated in preparation for a third world war which the British and US ruling class were convinced would be inevitable. It would concentrate on members of the German Communist Party, Red Army defectors and East Europeans discovered in the British zone and who were suspected of being Soviet spies. Over the following two years, 372 men and forty-four women passed through its gates.

It was run ostensibly by the British military but a number of the interrogators were MI5 and MI6 employees in military uniform. Those incarcerated were put through hell and a good number never survived to tell their tales, others were so maltreated as to become permanent wrecks. They were kept in filthy conditions, tortured using nazi thumb- and shin-screws, they were beaten, doused with freezing water, starved of food, and a number became mentally deranged.

A German doctor, who was so appalled at what he witnessed, decided to file a report to the British high command in Germany. A ‘top secret’ investigation was instituted and as a result several officers were dismissed from the army but none of those responsible for carrying out the tortures was called to account. The British government was frightened that news of the maltreatment would become public knowledge and ‘be exploited by the Russians’, so the revelations were hushed up. The British government also knew that Bad Nenndorf was not the only such interrogation centre in Germany.

In his report the German doctor disclosed that when the former inmates of this interrogation camp were delivered to his hospital they looked as severely emaciated as those rescued from the concentration camps at the end of the war. One of these victims was Hans Habermann, a Jewish prisoner who had survived three years in Buchenwald concentration camp only to be tortured and almost killed by his liberators.

Suspicions and arrests were often based on bad or inaccurate information and very little intelligence of use emerged from the interrogations of inmates at Bad Nenndorf. Brigadier Dick White who was the Intelligence Division’s Head of Counter Intelligence in Germany at the time would later be knighted and promoted to become Director General of MI5.

The specific organisation set up during the war to undertake interrogations was CSDIC (Combined Services Detailed Interrogation Centre). It was deemed to be so effective that a new branch was established in Egypt after the war. Interrogators there began to experiment with drugs and psychological methods as means of obtaining information. Similar interrogation centres were subsequently set up in a whole number of countries in the post war period where torture was widely practised. These countries included Kenya, Yemen/Aden, Borneo, Malaysia, Cyprus, British Guyana and, more recently and closer to home, in Northern Ireland.

In 1955 the Labour MP Barbara Castle wrote in Tribune at the height of the campaign against the Mau Mau in Kenya: ‘In the heart of the British Empire there is a police state where the rule of law has broken down, where the murder and torture of Africans by Europeans goes unpunished and where the authorities pledged to enforce justice regularly

connive at its violation.’ But her words fell on deaf ears. In Kenya during the 1950s torture was used systematically.

During the twelve-year conflict in Malaysia that began in 1948, against the communist-led guerrilla struggle for independence, British Special branch also conducted highly secretive drug experiments on unwilling prisoners. From 1951 onwards the British government also began closer co-operation with the CIA in the development of new drugs and psychological torture methods, including sensory deprivation for use in detention centres.

These methods were widely used throughout the Middle East and North Africa and elsewhere by British occupational forces. Successive governments, both Tory and Labour have continuously and vehemently denied that torture is being used by British forces anywhere.

Reports of western governments using torture methods to extract information from prisoners of war is not new. ‘Artichoke’ was the codename for a top secret CIA research programme in mind control and torture techniques. After the Second World War, the CIA took over the research programme that the Nazis had conducted in concentration camps, experimenting with human beings.

When Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett and Britain’s Daily Worker correspondent Alan Winnington reported that North Korean and Chinese POWs held by the western allies during the Korean War (1950-53) were being kept in brutal and inhuman conditions in Allied camps and that germ warfare was being used, the reports were dismissed as ‘communist propaganda’.

The US Army’s psychological warfare section and the CIA were collecting material in order to discredit the two journalists. However, it has since been revealed that work was being carried out on a secret bacteriological warfare programme for the US Military at Fort Detrick, Maryland, as well as a top secret mind control and torture programme for the CIA, also at Fort Detrick and at secret locations in Germany.

Some of the leading scientific experts in Nazi Germany had been involved in biological warfare, testing the effects of deadly germs on human beings in Dachau and other concentration camps. One of them was Professor Kurt Blome. Blome was the nazis’ Deputy Surgeon General and the man behind German research into biological weapons.

Blome was tried at Nuremberg and should have faced the death penalty but he was acquitted. The Americans had other plans for him. The US was interested in anyone who had worked in biological warfare, nazis or not. During the fifties, one of the US Army’s most important facilities in Germany and the CIA’s top secret headquarters waslocated in the building of IG Farben, in the heart of Frankfurt (the same IG Fasrben that developed the gas to kill the inmates of the concentration camps). Olson had switched from the US Army biological weapons research program to a top secret CIA project to use chemicals, drugs and torture on human beings in order to break their will and make them submissive, i.e. brainwashing. The name of this operation was ‘Artichoke’.

“The team would enjoy the opportunity of applying “Artichoke” techniques to individuals of dubious loyalty, suspected agents or plants and subjects having known reasons for deception…”

“The goal of the experiments is to manipulate the human mind in order to extract secrets from its subjects. And then to erase their memory, so they can’t remember what happened to them.”

One of those involved (who was later died in suspicious circumstances after threatening to reveal what he had been involved in) said, ‘they [the CIA] were using nazis, to carry out experiments on prisoners, they were using Russians, and they didn’t care what happened to them’.

The French army routinely used the most brutal torture methods during its war against the Algerian liberation struggle 1954-62 and undoubtedly felt more than justified by knowing that the US and its allies had used similar methods in Korea and elsewehre.

In December 2005, the full truth about British complicity in rendition and torture during the ‘war on terror’ was still very much an official secret and the then Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw unashamedly told MPs on the Commons’ Foreign Affairs Committee that allegations of mistreatment beginning to surface in the media were nothing more than conspiracy theories.

Another Labour Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, would argue that the public should not be informed of certain key paragraphs from the court judgement that revealed that MI5 was aware that Binyamin Mohamed who had been arrested in Karachi as a supposed terrorist, had been tortured. On the basis that ‘we were committed to our joint obligations with the US not to divulge matters of secrecy involving both states’.

In order to avoid the embarrassment of disclosures of government involvement in torture, wars and torture are now increasingly being outsourced to unaccountable private companies and responsibility can be thus easily denied.

We view the Middle Ages now as a period of dark history in which humans inflicted unspeakable cruelty on each other but we are still complicit in our own governments carrying out or being complicit in the use torture. When will it be totally banned for the terrible crime it is?

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