Italy & Spain: Iraq torture sparks political controversy


The publishing of photographs revealing the extent and seriousness of torture suffered by Iraqi prisoners at the hands of US troops in Abu Ghraib prison has sparked political controversy in Italy and Spain, two of the countries whose governments originally supported the US-UK intervention, although the Spanish position changed after the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE), led by José Luis Zapatero, came to power after the general election held on 14 March.

In Italy, the images of the abuse inflicted on Iraqi prisoners resulted in the centre-left opposition calling for the return of Italian troops from Iraq, while it had previously been divided as to whether to support or oppose Italian involvement. The crisis also resulted in embarassment for the Italian government, which immediately denied having any knowledge of what was occurring in prisons in Iraq, although evidence that emerged from different sources suggested otherwise. A press statement issued by the Italian section of Amnesty International (AI) on 11 May 2004 claimed that the government did have knowledge about allegations of torture in Iraq, because the foreign affairs undersecretary Margherita Boniver replied to a parliamentary question on this issue on 3 July 2003, saying that "in relation to the allegations by Amnesty International about the conditions reserved for Iraqi internees in the American base of Camp Cropper in Baghdad and other detention centres in the country… the NGO itself has contacted the U.S. authorities directly…, welcoming the declarations made by the US army´s legal advisors and by the Provisional Occupying Authority about wanting to rapidly improve detention conditions in these establishments." AI had sent a memorandum to Paul Bremer on 26 June 2003, and AI Italy ha d issued a press statement four days later, saying that "The conditions under which Iraqis are detained in Camp Cropper and in the prison of Abu Ghraib may constitute cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, which is forbidden by international law". Confirmation of these reports also came from Pina Bruno, the wife of a carabiniere marshal who died in Iraq, who claimed that her husband had repeatedly told her of the inhuman conditions in which Iraqis were detained in Nassiriya and from a carabinieri organisation (Unione Nazionale dell'Arma dei Carabinieri, UNAC, see Statewatch news online, June 2004) that posted photographs showing the brutal treatment of prisoners in Nassiriya (the city that hosts the headquarters of Italian forces in Iraq), thus proving that Italian personnel, and authorities did know about such practices. A carabinieri general, Paolo Spagnuolo, confirmed that he knew about such practices, and had passed on information to his superiors in Rome.

In Spain, political debate was heated since before the war started, due to the Partido Popular (PP) government's belligerant stance in support of the US position, which was opposed by all the remaining political parties represented in parliament, and by a vast segment of civil society, resulting in repeated and massive demonstrations. The PP reacted angrily to its election defeat in the wake of the Madrid bombings (see Statewatch vol. 14 no. 2), which it blames on "misinformation" and "defamation", in spite of substantial evidence that it knowingly manipulated information to attribute the attack to ETA rather than Al Q'aida. A series of veiled threats marked statements issued from the two main parties in the run-up to the European elections held in July. The PP candidate Jaime Mayor Oreja, a former interior minister and the head of the party in the Basque Country, threatened on 17 May to re-open the debate on torture in Spain by the Grupos Antiterroristas de Liberación (GAL, death squads that targeted Basque activists, mainly in the French Basque Country, between 1983 and 1987) if the PSOE candidate José Borrell continued to talk of Iraq, and of the torture suffered by Iraqi prisoners. The response from the PSOE came from Juan Carlos Ibarra, the head of the government in the autonomous region of Extremadura. Two days later, he said that if Oreja wanted to talk about torture, the PSOE would have to accept the challenge and talk about torture, from "today as well as yesterday". In particular, he said they could "talk about when Oreja was the government envoy in the Basque Country" and "43 members of ETA were murdered", and of his regulars week-end visits to see General Rodríguez Galindo in Intxaurrondo Guardia Civil barracks (both the general, who is serving a 75-year sentence, and the barracks were heavily implicated in the GAL scandal) when he was the leader of the opposition. He also mentioned the mass expulsion of a large number of "blacks" who were repatriated after being sedated, many of whom were allegedly killed once they were back in their country. It seems remarkable that these serious allegations concerning crimes committed by state authorities, by the two main parties in the parliamentary spectrum, should be shrouded in secrecy to be used for political gain.

El País, 18.5, 20.5.2004; L'Unità, 12.5.2004; Repubblica, 12.5.2004; UNAC website: www.unionecarabinieri.it ; photographs published on the UNAC website: www.unionecarabinieri.it/speciali_detail.asp?id_spec=42


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