From July 2003 to February 2004, an Australian military lawyer, Major George O’Kane, was embedded with United States forces in Baghdad, including at Abu Ghraib prison. During this time, there were a number of incidents in which the US military detained prisoners in a way that breached international law. PIAC has obtained documents revealing that Major O’Kane was aware of two disturbing incidents relating to the US military’s detention practices.
O’Kane communicated this information to his Australian superiors. However, the Australian Government failed to raise concerns about this US action. Australia’s failure to act suggests some level of complicity in this breach of international law.
Detainee Triple X
In January 2004, Major O’Kane became aware that the US was keeping a detainee, Hiwa Abdul Rahmna Rashul, known as ‘Detainee Triple X’, hidden from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Detainee Triple X was detained in Afghanistan and Iraq in breach of international law.
Major O’Kane reported this highly classified and sensitive information to his US and Australian superiors in the Middle East. However, it appears that the Australian military failed to raise a concern about this breach of international law with its ally, the United States. This suggests, at least, serious deficiencies in the effective functioning of the Australian military chain of command.
On his return to Australia, during extensive interviews with Department of Defence officials regarding his role in Iraq, Major O’Kane did not raise Detainee Triple X. It was only after US media made public the detention of Detainee Triple X on 17 June 2004, that Major O’Kane brought his knowledge of the issue to the attention of officials in Australia.
The Australian Government has kept Major O’Kane’s knowledge of Detainee Triple X from the public and Parliament. The detention of Detainee Triple X has been widely condemned as breaching international humanitarian and human rights law. However, at no stage did the Australian Government express any concerns with the US about this serious breach. Instead, after the media became aware of Detainee Triple X, the Australian Government simply informed the US Ambassador of O’Kane’s knowledge ‘for action as appropriate’.
‘Ghost prisoners’ at Abu Ghraib
The documents obtained by PIAC also reveal that in January 2004, Major O’Kane was instructed by a senior US military officer to deny the ICRC access to nine people being held in cell block 1A at Abu Ghraib. The US refused the ICRC access on the basis that the nine detainees were undergoing active interrogation at the time of the visit.
However, under the Geneva Convention, the ICRC can only be denied access to detainees for reasons of imperative military necessity and only as an exceptional and temporary measure.
The documents suggest that the US sought to rely on this exemption more broadly, on a systematic basis. The ICRC visits were regarded as an inconvenience as they interrupted interrogations. Major O’Kane said: ‘if you break someone down, or persuade them to give up information you don’t need them drawing strength from an ICRC visit’.
The documents show that Major O’Kane, Australia’s military representative at Abu Ghraib, did not object to the obstruction of ICRC visits to these detainees. This is despite the fact that O’Kane recognised that the obstruction was at least in part motivated by a desire to “break down” detainees who were being interrogated. Moreover, although this issue was brought to the attention of superior Australian military officers and the Australian Government, Australia did not formally object to this practice.
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Story 3 – Australia’s knowledge of and role in hiding detainees from the International Committee of the Red Cross at Abu Ghraib