Abuses in military detention: uncovering the truth 

Abuses in military detention: uncovering the truth 

Working closely with national media, and following a dogged pursuit of FOI requests, we blew the lid off Australia’s role in secret military operations related to conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

In 2013, after 5 years of legal wrangling, the Justice and Equity Centre (as PIAC) used freedom of information laws to obtain previously classified and confidential documents relating to Australia’s involvement in the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and the mistreatment of prisoners. 

The documents provide insights into Australia’s military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2001 and 2005. They revealed that the Australian Government deliberately tried to avoid its obligations under international law in relation to detainees caught by the Australia Defence Force in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

The documents included records of interviews with ADF personnel, situation reports, minutes and briefs, and Question Time briefs. 

We worked with national media outlets to ensure wide reporting of the documents’ contents and our accompanying analysis, to expose Australia’s role in secret activities long denied by the Australian military. 

The disastrous consequences of Australia’s actions

The documents revealed that an Iranian man, Tanik Mahmud, died in custody. He was captured by Australian SAS troops in Western Iraq and transferred to UK custody. There was strong evidence suggesting that Mr Mahmud was fatally assaulted by UK RAF troops. The UK and Australian governments refused to release the full details surrounding the death. 

The Australian Government had prior knowledge of illegal detention practices in Iraq, including at Abu Ghraib prison. This included hiding prisoners from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and obstructing the ICRC’s access to prisoners. An Australian military lawyer advised on US interrogation techniques and concluded they were open to abuse. 

The Australian Government failed to raise concerns about US breaches of international law with its ally, suggesting some level of complicity. 

The Australian Government misled Parliament and deliberately withheld important information from the Australian public relating to detainee mistreatment in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

The documents raised serious questions about the functioning of the ADF and Department of Defence. Australia was ill-prepared for the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, with no policy on what to do with detainees. 

Despite our efforts to unearth the truth, key information about the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan was never released. 

Media coverage 

Sydney Morning Herald: Calls for inquiry into Abu Ghraib abuses, 4 July 2011 

ABC Online: Revealed: Defence confusion over POWs, 4 July 2011 

ABC TV 7:30: 4 July 2011 

Sydney Morning Herald: ADF knew of abuses at Abu Ghraib, 5 July 2011 

Sydney Morning Hearld: Odious prisoner-of-war practices treat Anzac heritage with disrespect by Edward Santow, 5 July 2011 

Sydney Morning Herald: We got it wrong on abuse warning, Defence admits, 5 July 2011 

The Guardian: RAF helicopter death revelation leads to secret Iraq detention camp, 8 February 2012 

RN Breakfast: Secret prisons, 9 February 2012 

Sydney Morning Herald: Australia’s link to secret Iraq prisons, 9 February 2012 

Sydney Morning Herald: Australia ‘integral’ in secret jail, 9 February 2012 

ABC Radio AM: 9 February 2012 

ABC Radio Australia: 9 February 2012 

Sydney Morning Herald: Memo states Defence role in death of Iraq prisoner, February 10 2012 

Sydney Morning Herald: Supervision of interrogation training was never adopted, 14 March 2012 

Sydney Morning Herald: Drawing the line on torture, 24 March 2012 

Read more

Story 1 – Australia’s detention, custody and transfer policy in Afghanistan and Iraq

Story 2 – Australia’s role in capturing 66 detainees in Iraq on 11 April 2003 and the death in UK custody of a detainee

Story 3 – Australia’s knowledge of and role in hiding detainees from the International Committee of the Red Cross at Abu Ghraib

Story 4 – Australian military lawyer’s advice on interrogation techniques at Abu Ghraib

Story 5 – Australian knowledge of, and role in investigating, torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib

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