The Irish government has accused the UK government of torturing 14 men who were held without charge during what was known as internment in Northern Ireland during the summer of 1971, and is applying to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) for a rehearing of their original case concerning the so-called Hooded Men. The request follows the discovery of several startling new documents in Britain's National Archives that indicate the UK withheld information during the original trial, which found that the men were subjected to "inhumane and degrading treatment," but not torture.
A few hours before dawn on August 9, 1971, the British army — deployed to put down the armed struggle against UK rule — ram-raided their way into Catholic homes across Northern Ireland, arresting hundreds and detaining them without charge. The detainees alleged brutal treatment while in custody; being forced to exercise to the point of exhaustion, being threatened — and in one recorded case bitten — by dogs, being forced to run over gravel and glass in their bare feet, and being thrown out of helicopters at a low height, as well as physical assaults.
While the majority were eventually released home to their families, 14 men remained in custody without charge — for years in some cases — and were subjected to appalling interrogations at the hands of British security forces, sanctioned and ordered by the highest levels of the UK government, the newly released files reveal. The UK home secretary at the time, Merlyn Rees, sent a letter to the then Prime Minister James Callaghan in which he states the "decision to use methods of torture" was a political one taken by ministers — pointing the finger at the minister of defense at the time, Lord Carrington, in particular. In the margins of this note, the head of the army wrote: "This could grow into something awkward if pursued".
This unprecedented admission, uncovered by researchers at human rights NGO The Pat Finucane Center, and first publicly released in an RTE documentary called The Torture Files by Rita O'Reily, has prompted the Irish government to ask the ECHR to rehear the case and recognize that the UK did in fact torture its own citizens on its own soil.
The interrogation methods used are known as the Five Techniques: Wall standing in a stress position, sensory deprivation such as enforced hooding and white noise and sleep and food deprivation. The 11 surviving men have grown old with the scars of the traumas they endured etched deep, while the original ECHR ruling has been used as a legal justification for similar methods of "enhanced interrogation techniques," most recently by America's CIA.
'If Britain taught the world anything, it taught it how to torture.'
Frankie McGuigan, one of the Hooded Men, was 23 when he was lifted from his home in north Belfast. He told VICE News:
"I was in bed at 3:30 in the morning. The next thing I know there was an unmerciful thump in my stomach. I up in bed and there was a soldier pointing a rifle in my face. There were two others behind him, who grabbed me and told me they were arresting me. I went to get dressed — I was only wearing only my underpants. When I had my trousers on they said that is enough, and they dragged me out of the house."
Along with some of his neighbours he was thrown into the back of an army lorry, forced to lie on the floor and taken to an army barracks. Recording testimony of internees back in October 1971, Amnesty International said:
"Some beatings took place en route to prison, many savage in nature. Certain of the older men in the group were brutalised to the degree they could not properly walk or speak upon arrival at prison."
Forced to sit on the floor in lines, McGuigan said that over the next 48 hours he had around three hours sleep. Every few hours he was interrogated. After this initial period other detainees began to be released, but McGuigan, still wearing only his trousers and underpants, was passed by. Instead, he claimed, he was approached by a Special Branch officer who told him "we have something special in mind for you." Special Branch were a particularly feared unit of the police, tasked with protecting the state from terrorism and implicated in a long list of abuses against Catholic civilians in Northern Ireland. They were one of several forces present that day, McGuigan said.
"A military policeman then came and gripped a hold of me and the officer in charge ordered my trousers and underpants removed and he had himself photographed holding me by the hair. With me completely naked. "
There was no picture of this nature among the 17,000 documents released by the National Archives and trawled through by the Pat Finucane Centre and the RTE team.
The men had hoods placed on top of their heads, were chained together and taken into army helicopters, according to testimonies. The hoods were "heavy sacks" made of an opaque cloth making breathing difficult. Amnesty said: "The men were forced into helicopters and made to lie on the floor of the aircraft. All were handcuffed, many too tightly. Personnel joked that the men were to have their 'graves in the sea'."
The three Hooded Men interviewed by VICE News said the sense of disorientation was profound, even at this early stage, and they could only estimate the journey took around 40 minutes. They arrived at an unknown location, and were dropped on the ground from the helicopter before it landed, while hooded, before being separated and taken to different rooms.
Kevin Hannaway said he remembered then being taken into a room filled with a "continuous high pitched noise that continued morning, noon and night." Some of the men said the noise was like a hissing of steam, others said it was like an air compressor. The men were then forced into a stress position, and remained like that for hours on end: "I was stretched out and forced to place my fingertips to the wall, and if I moved or shrugged in any way I was physically beaten and picked up and put back to the wall. This went on continuously — around the clock. I know the British said everyone was at the wall for certain periods of time. But I would absolutely contest that — it was just continuous. It never stopped."
In a third room, the men described waking up after blacking out handcuffed to the a pipe on the floor. A further fourth room was used for interrogations, they said.
If the men did not give satisfactory answers, they were then beaten, they alleged, or taken to back to the white noise room the army called the "music box" where temperatures were sweltering. McGuigan said the room was "so hot you would be perspiring constantly even though there was no physical activity — but you were stretched to the limits on your toes and fingertips. Then in the room that you were handcuffed to the pipe, it was absolutely freezing."
All of the men said their families where threatened, and recall the army taunts vividly. McGuigan said he was told that 70 people on his tiny street were killed in a bomb — a very real possibility in the dark days of the so-called Troubles, particularly in the early hours after the mass arrests when the city erupted — and was then laughed at and sent back to the white noise room to digest this fictional information.
They all reported suffering terrifying hallucinations during and since their ordeal, and said they were unclear if these were caused by their treatment, or if they may have been injected with drugs when they had blacked out. They spent their time clothed in ill-fitting boiler suits and said they were denied toilet facilities, remaining in their soiled suits for the duration of their stay, which lasted approximately a week, before being "released" into prison.
During this time, their families had no idea where they were. Liam Shannon told VICE News his family went as far as going to Belfast's High Court to demand that authorities tell them where he was, but the Special Powers Act - a controversial piece of legislation granting the authorities' sweeping powers to maintain order — prevented them from accessing any information. It was only after the Pat Finucane Center uncovered documents at the National Archives earlier this year that the men found out they were held a secret interrogation center in a military airfield in Ballykelly, County Derry.
Sara Duddy, a caseworker with the Pat Finucane Center, said the discovery of this location in the files at the National Archive was a pivotal moment in their research — the location and existence of this center had been withheld from the European Commission and from the European Court of Human Rights. She told VICE News: "Basically what they were saying in some of the documents and what they were saying in the court case it was completely at odds. We thought, if they have lied about this - if they lied about where it was — then they could have withheld other substantive details."
Other crucial information that seemed to contradict the details contained within the original judgement was also found in the files — relating, for example, to the length of time the men spent on the wall as well as the amount of food they received. The medical evidence submitted appears to have been seriously flawed.
"If you look at the length of times recorded when the men were forced to stand against the wall, compared to what it said in the judgement — things just didn't tally."
The original court case heard that the men were fed every six hours. McGuigan bitterly disputes this, saying between beatings, interrogations, the hot white noise room and the freezing cell where he was chained to the floor, he was left unfed for 72 hours.
"I think it was after three days before we got anything to eat or drink. On the first day I received something to eat I remember coming in to the interrogation room. I had the figure 8 written on the back of my hand, and there on the table in front of me was a big mug with the figure 8 on it, and a spoon in it. They lifted the spoon out of the water and put it in my mouth, and told me if I told them all they needed to know then I could drink the water. Then an hour or so later I was given the mug of water to drink and two rounds of dried bread. Only once did we get what you would classify as a solid meal, and that was a bowl of cold stew. I lost about a stone and a half in nine days. "
The bread and water diet the men claimed they were kept on was referred to in the National Archive documents — but again, not disclosed to the court in the original case taken by the Irish state.
Medical records uncovered by the Pat Finucane Center and seen by VICE News show startling weight losses recorded — one man lost 16 lbs (7 kilos) between August 11 and August 17, another had to be treated in prison hospital for his injuries and yet another was recorded as being bruised around his eye and body. Pictures taken in hospital days after show some of the extent of the injuries reported.
The five techniques were utilized by the British government in a number of other countries, including Kenya, and last year former UK Foreign Secretary William Hague apologized for their use in the 1950s, describing them as torture. McGuigan was at pains to stress that the techniques was accompanied by a less sophisticated sixth: "You know, everyone talks about the five techniques, but really there was a sixth technique that isn't really mentioned as much and that was, to put it in Belfast terms; they just knocked your bollocks in."
The techniques were officially banned in 1972 by the Prime Minister Edward Heath and are prohibited by the Geneva Conventions. However, the men's solicitor, Darragh Mackin, said the precedent set by the ECHR ruling on the basis of the false information received from the British authorities meant they continued to be used.
"This vow was dishonored. In 2003, it was publicly confirmed that the five techniques had been used in Iraq where Baha Mousa died," he told VICE News, referring to an Iraqi man who died in British custody in Basra in 2003 after being subjected to physical abuses including the use of the techniques.
Mackin continued: "It has been further confirmed that these techniques were again used by the Bush regime in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay. In what is known as the Torture Memos, President Bush was advised in the Ireland v UK case, the European Court recognised a wide array of acts that do not amount to torture, thus appearing to permit, under international law, an aggressive interpretation."
This last fact weighs heavily on the minds of the men, and is part of why they want the decision on their treatment to be upgraded to torture. Liam Shannon said: "'When Bush went to Iraq, the first thing he reached for were the findings of our case — and when he read it, it gave him carte blanche to do what he wanted. Baha Mousa lost his life because of that very ruling. […] It was the findings of that court that gave the clearance for them to be used. We know it, and they all know it."
That the judgment was flawed is a certainty for the men, who are pleased they may yet have their day in court, and they are in no way surprised to find the UK government misled the court. None of the men have ever been charged with any crime. All three said they had found strength in each other's company, in their determination to roll back this judgement and the precedent it set for other governments to use the techniques on other people. Hannaway said: "I have no doubt that this treatment is continuing. If Britain taught the world anything, it taught it how to torture."
Amnesty International are calling for the UK to set up an independent inquiry into the case. In an interview with VICE News, Amnesty's Northern Ireland program director Patrick Corrigan said it was clear the US learned dangerous lessons from their closest ally.
"We now know that the European Court decision was very likely based on misleading evidence presented by the UK government — so a faulty judgment in 1978 about torture in Northern Ireland helped pave the way for torture throughout the world. The United States learned the wrong lessons from Northern Ireland. One of these was that you could use techniques which they considered to be "just ill-treatment" but which ought to have been called "torture." They also learned that you can, apparently, get away with torture. That certainly is what has happened in the UK with respect to the hooded men case.
"For the past 43 years the UK authorities have never carried out a proper investigation into the brutal abuse suffered by the men and no-one—- from those who inflicted the suffering to those who authorized it, right up to Cabinet level — has ever been held accountable."
If the case is not successful, the men and their lawyers say the new documents have opened up other legal avenues for them to pursue. They remain optimistic — pleased that the Irish government is taking up their case and confident the fresh evidence and the global implications of the original ruling mean they can no longer be ignored.
More than four decades on, despite the suffering he and the others have struggled to put into words, Shannon said the Irish government's appeal has inspired the group with a tentative hope: "I see myself as one of the lucky ones to have survived. I find it very strange they let us all live to tell the world what happened to us. We want our day in court and I want Britain convicted of torture, and for governments to know you can't do this to your citizens."
Main photo: 10 of the surviving hooded men and two members of the team working on their case. Image via Jim McIImurray/Kevin Winters Law
Left to right, back row: Joe Clarke, Patrick McNally, Brian Turely, and Michael Donnelly; middle row: Kevin Hannaway, Gerry McKerr, and Frank McGuigan; front row: Liam Shannon, Paddy Joe McClean, Jim Auld, Thomas Hammarberg of Amnesty, and Monsignor Raymond Murray, the former prison chaplain who first raised the case.
Follow Lara Whyte on Twitter: @LaraWhyte