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

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

Documents released to PIAC show that an Australian military lawyer, Major George O’Kane, played a key role in responding to allegations of torture and abuse at the US-run prison, Abu Ghraib, in 2003.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) visited detention facilities and collated detainees’ allegations, filing confidential reports on its findings. The ICRC reports found that the US had engaged in serious mistreatment of detainees. This amounted to fundamental breaches of international law.

Major O’Kane was tasked to respond to some of these reports. He drafted a letter of response to the ICRC on behalf of the US Commander in charge of Abu Ghraib, Brigadier General Karpinski.

PIAC has obtained previously classified records of interview with Department of Defence officials, which reveal that Major O’Kane did not take seriously the ICRC reports of abuse and mistreatment. He did not investigate the abuses rigorously, and he was sceptical of the ICRC reports, dismissing their content.

Major O’Kane’s attitude to at least some controversial interrogation techniques is disturbing. He said, ‘they [the ICRC] call it ill treatment, but we call it successful interrogation techniques’. Contrary to clear international law, O’Kane also expressed ambivalence about whether mistreatment or degradation of detainees is absolutely prohibited. This attitude is especially troubling given that it comes from Australia’s military legal representative.

Unsurprisingly, the official response to the ICRC reports, which was drafted by Major O’Kane, ‘glossed over’ the allegations of abuse and mistreatment.

The Australian Government protected Major O’Kane from public questioning by the Australian Senate and a US inquiry. It seems reasonable to conclude that the Australian Government did this because it was concerned about O’Kane’s testimony.

Australia also failed to respond adequately to the abuse allegations. Its own report into the abuses was deficient. The Department of Defence ‘struggled to provide accurate and timely advice to government’.

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