The Iraqi revolution will not be televised. But the battered detainee’s ‘confession’ will...
One of the enduring images of the first Gulf War in 1991 was the “capture video” of the two British RAF lieutenants John Nicol and John Peters.
The two young airmen, in their flight jackets with Union Jack badges, stared out from millions of British TV screens and newspapers for days (the Daily Mail had a memorable "What has he done to them?" front page). Nicol, square-jawed and hollow-eyed. Peters, horribly bruised and holding his head down. They gave wooden, highly unconvincing “confessions” about their role in the war. Here were two POWs being made the subject of “public curiosity” contrary to the Geneva Conventions. They also appeared to be the victims of torture. And they were incriminating themselves, very likely under duress.
Scroll forward two decades and, with Saddam long gone and Iraq under the prime ministership of Nouri al-Maliki, what do we find? You guessed it. TV “confessions” from scores - hundreds - of detainees, each admitting responsibility for serious crimes, some bearing the visible scars of alleged torture.
So, since Saddam’s departure Iraqi television viewers have been served up programmes with names like “Terrorism in the Grip of Justice”. This has shown pre-trial detainees ‘fessing up to things like being a member of an armed group, abduction and murder. Even some international TV stations have carried this stuff. In some cases the “confessees” have actually been executed after shoddy trials largely based on these highly prejudicial appearances (which are contrary to international fair trial standards as well as Iraq’s own penal code). Meanwhile, in some cases these TV penitents have ended up being released when it became overwhelmingly obvious to the judicial authorities that the whole thing had been cooked up.
When the Iraqi authorities have been challenged about this sinister brand of primetime TV, they’ve actually blamed the media themselves, quite ridiculously pretending that a TV station could arrange broadcasts with detained people without the authorisation - and active involvement - of the Ministry of Interior and other Iraqi authorities. (For more on the whole topic of Iraq’s televised confessions see these two Amnesty reports: here [pp36-38] and here [pp21-25]).
Just last week The Guardian’s powerful article on the alleged activities in Iraq of the retired US special forces operative Colonel James Steele made reference to the televised confessions. Some of the shows used pre-recorded videos of detainees supposedly confessing, videos reportedly made using cameras paid for by the USA. The Guardian reports that the US general David Petraeus’ office tried to put a stop to the practice of tortured detainees appearing on television in this manner, though after a temporary halt the programmes started up again. (The Guardian also reports that the US was instrumental in orchestrating some of the torture itself. It was just apparently squeamish about tortured people appearing on national TV screens).
In this country we’re well used to confessional television in the mould of The Wright Stuff or Trisha Goddard, but the variety that Iraqi viewers have been tuning into is in a whole different league. It’s as if Crimewatch suddenly started having individuals on the show who’ve yet to stand trial but face the camera and say they’ve been plotting to blow up the Houses of Parliament. It’s totally preposterous and a sure sign that Iraq’s justice system is in a ruinous condition.
And Iraq’s justice system is in a ruinous condition. Forty-eight judges and prosecutors as well as 38 other judicial staff have been killed between 2003 and 2011, according to Iraq’s Supreme Judicial Council. Similarly the Iraqi Bar Association has a list of over 100 lawyers killed between 2003 and 2008, with many more dead since. Meanwhile, these killings are dwarfed by the death toll in Iraq’s police force, with approximately 11,000 murdered since 2003 according to Iraq Body Count.
At the same time corruption in the creaking judicial system is reportedly absolutely rife and many cases are either railroaded through with scant regard for legal niceties (like the case of the dual UK-Iraqi national Ramze Shihab Ahmed, jailed for 15 years after a 15-minute hearing last June) - or they grind to a halt (there have been instances of people held for more than four years without being brought to trial). Symbolically enough, Saddam Hussein’s own trial was itself a hole-in-the-wall affair (and his botched, secretive hanging a deeply shameful event).
The “break with Saddam” that might have followed the US-led invasion ten years ago has in many ways never happened. Torture, show trials and execution are still the hallmark of the justice system in Iraq, especially in cases involving national security or alleged terrorism.
A final story. Kadom al-Jabouri, the burly “sledgehammer man” who became famous for trying to knock down Saddam’s statue in Firdos Square in Baghdad in April 2003 now says he feels betrayed by the failures of the post-Saddam governments. He reckons “nothing has changed” and “there’s no future” in Iraq. And this from a man who spent 11 years languishing in jail under the Ba’athist government.
The ironies are extremely deep here. If Al-Jabouri was an unintended icon of Saddam’s fall from power, it’s also possible that the repeat TV broadcasts of his sledgehammer attack contributed to a false sense that Saddam Hussein’s unseating was the decisive “moment” in Iraq’s history - thus diverting attention from the need to support a country still basically in the throes of authoritarianism and of incipient sectarianism.
I’m not blaming television for the state Iraq is currently in, but just pointing out that television’s framing of some aspects of Iraq in the past decade have made matters worse not better. In a way those haunting images of John Nicol and John Peters 22 years ago were just the start of it.
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