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Prisoner Abuse in Iraq: A Danish Case

Mike Jones

IN Politiken (5 May 2005) it was reported that "an officer from the Defence Academy had, via e-mail, urged Danish soldiers in Iraq to apply a harder line towards the local Iraqis in February last year". The e-mail was included in the case against intelligence officer Annemette Hommel and four military police NCOs. It was sent by a Captain Simonsen at the Defence Academy to Hommel's immediate superior in Iraq. According to the e-mail Simonsen had been made aware that access to the locals was more difficult than the soldiers had learnt back home, as the culture of the locals is "macho-like", and he finished the e-mail by saying: "So take care not to be too friendly."

The e-mail was passed on to Hommel prior to the three episodes of interrogation in March, April and June 2004, during which she is accused of having humiliated captured Iraqis. It was unclear whether the e-mail from Simonsen had an official or purely private character, and whether it caused Hommel to step up the pressure. The prosecutor stated that there had been a prolonged e-mail correspondence.

Jyllands-Posten (25 May 2005) reported the testimony of a female interpreter. She explained that the treatment of Iraqi prisoners during the interrogation of three of them on 10 March 2004, by Annemette Hommel and the MPs, was very violent. "The prisoners had to be just about dragged to and from the interrogation tent, so physically exhausted were they. They ware in a bad way", said the interpreter. She explained that, under interrogation the prisoners had to rest on their knees with a straight back, and if they collapsed, the MPs pulled them up again.

During interrogation she heard Annemette Hommel call one of the prisoners "shit of a dog" and "a man without a penis". The prisoners were also denied water. One of the prisoners was dragged "over the ground" and into the tent by two MPs, so that his trousers ended up around his knees. He also defecated in his trousers. Prior to interrogation the prisoners were also treated harshly, the interpreter explained, and told how she had heard Hommel tell the MPs to be sure to soften them up before interrogation.

With her statement the interpreter contradicted her previous boss in relation to key points. The interpreter, who studies at the South Danish University, had never previously tried to interrogate prisoners, but was passionate about wanting to be a language-officer in the military. Therefore she did not complain. "I was ashamed of the way the interrogation took place. But I distanced myself completely from the situation. I saw myself as an interpreting-machine", said the interpreter.

She stated that another group of prisoners under interrogation on 12 April also had to rest on their knees on the ground with a straight back, and were lifted up by MPs if they collapsed. This interrogation was not so brutal though.

The interpreter's statement that Annemette Hommel called one of the prisoners "a dog" was confirmed by one of the accused MPs; however he did not find the expression so bad. Another of the accused MPs confirmed that one of the prisoners had defecated in his trousers.

Once the matter about Hommel's conduct became public in the August, the interpreter and her friend and fellow interpreter were isolated in Camp Eden. "Nobody spoke to us, and an MP called me a prostitute", said the interpreter, who has subsequently received psychological help.

The four MPs are accused of having kept Iraqis in stress positions prior to interrogation and during the interrogation on 10 March. They are also accused of having refused the prisoners access to water, toilet visits and blankets, while they sat outside during the cold of the night.

MetroXpress (19 October 2005), wrote that it "was comparable to mental torture towards male Iraqi prisoners, when (the Danish military) allowed the female intelligence officer Annemette Hommel to lead the interrogations in Camp Eden. Simultaneously there was a question of failure of leadership by camp commander Henrik Flach, when Annemette Hommel began her first interrogation without supervision on the night of 10 March 2004. This became apparent when several witnesses summoned to give evidence in the case against Annemette Hommel who, together with four military policemen, is accused of using irregular methods of interrogation during three interrogation sessions of eleven Iraqi men in the spring of 2004, spoke yesterday.

"'Generally for Iraqi man to be interrogated by a woman has been an unpleasant and degrading experience', said the retired Lieutenant-Colonel Poul Dahl, previously commander of the Jæger Corps, who had served in Iraq for the UN. Also Colonel Lars Møller, Chief of Staff of the Danish Division in Haderslev, regards it as problematic that Annemette Hommel was appointed to lead the interrogations. Møller sees a conflict between, on the one hand, living up to the Danish desire for equality in the armed forces, and on the other hand, the consideration for the regulations that POWs must not be subject to mental torture. 'There can be no doubt that an Iraqi man being reprimanded by a woman will feel deeply, deeply humiliated, and I am sure that the prisoners have experienced it as mental torture', he said."

Hommel and the four MPs were found guilty of infringing the Geneva Convention but have appealed. Meanwhile Colonel Henrik Flach, Hommel's superior officer at Camp Eden, had been charged. In early March 2006, the charge against Flach was dropped, and according to a report in Urban (9 March 2006) the decision was met with "great astonishment" in the professional association representing lower-ranking military personnel. The Chairman of the association, Finn Busse Jensen, said: "Well, the military put on a big show in regard to punishing the small fish, and in part it succeeded. But I find it strange that one does not pursue the case further regarding the big fish."

When the story of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners broke I was in Denmark and followed it mainly on the radio and TV news broadcasts. As the case unfolded an officer talking on the radio, whose role I failed to catch, said that hypocrisy was involved here, as although the Danish troops in Iraq did uphold the Geneva Convention, they were allowed to hand prisoners over to the British who didn't. It was reported recently that the British, Dutch and another nation's troops I can't recall, do not hand prisoners over to the US forces, precisely due to their not upholding the Geneva Convention. What seems to be a common theme in the prisoner abuse cases in Iraq, apart from the rape, sexual degeneracy and killings by US forces at Abu Ghraib, and the thuggery and killings by some British troops in the Basra area, is the nature of the apparent official abuse: stress positions, sexual humiliation and inhumane treatment contrary to the Geneva Convention.

In Politiken (29 May 2005) a whole page was devoted to the interrogation technique called the Powex Exercise, based on the experience of the Danish military police sergeant Andreas Boas. Boas was, from the summer of 2003 until February 2004, a leading interrogator at the Danish camp in Iraq. He insists that he never used stress positions as he was aware that they were illegal. Iraqi prisoners ware sat in a chair before him, informed of the reason for their arrest, their rights, including the right to remain silent. His replacement was Annemette Hommel.

Boas relates how, when on exercise out on patrol with his unit of military policemen (in Denmark), they were suddenly captured by a superior force acting as "the enemy". They were handcuffed and their heads were covered, then driven to another location on the back of a lorry. They were stripped and dressed in boiler-suits. Being unable to see, they were led round and round and backwards and forwards until wholly disoriented.

The MP unit was undergoing the Powex Exercise, which is designed to prepare them to be able to resist interrogation if taken prisoner. The procedure is confidential. Boas was put in a cellar alone. He was subjected to "white noise" broadcast through loudspeakers. The soldiers call it "turkey music", as it sounds like a noisy turkey farm. The tone keeps changing to prevent the victims finding a rhythm in it in order to adjust to it. He was suddenly taken by both arms from room to room. Then ordered onto his knees. Later he was forced to stand back to the wall and then to walk with knees bent as if sitting on a chair.

He knew that all this was designed to both stress and physically exhaust him. When he spoke out to ask if any of his friends ware near he was struck in the face. That came as a shock. Then he was put in another stress position. When he began to shake he was put in yet another position. Still with his head covered he was then moved through an obstacle race and ended up in a room. By then he had lost track of the time. His head was then uncovered and he saw that he was in a dark room with a very bright light shining on him. The interrogator told him he couldn't be bothered talking to him. His head was covered again and he was taken outside. This took place a number of times so that Boas was unable to prepare himself for interrogation.

Eventually the interrogation began. Boas refused to give any details about his unit. The interrogator got worked up, shouted and screamed. Boas had his head covered once more and was taken outside. The ground was soft and he suspected that he was in a forest. He was put in a kneeling position. His lens went numb due to the bloodflow almost stopping but when he moved he was put back into the same position. Eventually he was dragged onto a concrete floor and again put into a kneeling position. After a time he was released without any more interrogation.

"I only held out because I knew it was an exercise and not the real thing", he said. Although hard, Boas never knew of anyone being permanently harmed by the exercise. Lieutenant-Colonel Steen Bornholdt Andersen has been responsible for the Powex Exercises for the last three years at the Defence Academy. He relates his experience in 1980 with the older version of the exercise which was more severe. He was handcuffed and sat on a stool with his eyes covered while cold water was thrown over him. Water was sprayed into his ears to get him to lose balance. Military psychologist Bente Særmark-Thomsen has been involved with many Powex Exercises over the years, and her general experience is that, they end up being a positive experience for the captured soldiers. That is due to coming through it and thus being able to cope with stress in the future.

When asked in court by the prosecutor whether she could differentiate between what was legal and what was illegal, Hommel replied: "I was never in doubt that the exercises used were illegal". According to the indictment she called the Iraqi prisoners "dogs, dog shit, dick heads, men without dicks or pigs". None of these insults are native terms of abuse in Denmark. In recent years the anglo-saxon "f" word has become popular among younger people and children, and expressions like "cock-sucker" are becoming more common. I assume this trend owes itself to the influence of TV films and videos made in the USA. But the terms of abuse used by Hommel were obviously designed to humiliate Iraqi men, or Muslims in general. Were they perhaps thought up by NATO, or the Coalition of the Willing? And where did the Powex Exercise originate? It is meaningless in Danish, and the Danish alphabet has no "w". The handful of words beginning with "w" in a Danish dictionary are of foreign origin.

In conclusion: there is a common theme in the various prisoner abuse cases in Iraq. The character of the abuse, but also the fact that the abuse seems to be sanctioned from above but with a sense of what the US regime terms "deniability", so that when the abuse is exposed it is only ordinary ranks or NCOs that are charged. The "few bad eggs" syndrome. Officers higher up the chain of command, as well as the politicians who give them their orders, are never found to be responsible. What we see constantly is scapegoating. Lindy England, the female soldier from a troubled and poor background at the centre of the Abu Ghraib scandal, who presumably did as she was told, was mocked by the politicians as "a recycled hillbilly". As Finn Busse Jensen, the representative of the Danish MPs professional association said, a big show was staged, to punish the small fish, but there was no case against the big fish.