Former defence minister to be questioned in torture trial

De-classified information proves military commanders and defence minister concealed evidence of torture in Iraqi prisons, says lawyer

Former defence minister Søren Gade (Venstre) will be called to witness next year in a trial focusing on six Iraqis who claim that Danish soldiers turned them over to Iraqi authorities, who the Danes allegedly knew were guilty of torturing prisoners.

Gade was defence minister in the winter of 2004, when the six Iraqis and dozens of others were detained by Danish soldiers during Operation Green Desert and delivered to the Iraqi authorities who, the plaintiffs claim, indeed tortured them.

According to international law, soldiers may not deliver prisoners of war to another authority they suspect of mistreating or torturing prisoners.

The Iraqis’ lawyer, Christian Harlang, announced on Friday that Gade would be called to testify, along with soldiers, officers, civil servants and the plaintiffs themselves.

“Søren Gade will testify about how much he, as the topmost responsible figure, knew about torture and to what extent the rules were followed,” Harlang told Berlingske newspaper.

How much Gade actually knew came under closer inspection on Thursday, when Information newspaper reported that in the summer of 2004 – four months prior to Operation Green Desert – both the Defence Ministry and the military’s uniformed commanders received a report from one of the military's lawyers outlining in stark detail, accompanied by photos, evidence of prisoners having been tortured in Iraqi prisons.

The report was written by Kurt Borgkvist, who had visited Iraqi prisons to investigate allegations of torture. In the report, Borgkvist documented that prisoners in Iraqi prisons had been burned with cigarettes, had their molars crushed, and been beaten around their genitals. Some were even missing fingers, Borgkvist reported.

The Defence Ministry shared parts of Borgkvist's report with parliament’s Defence Committee in the summer of 2004. However, the paragraphs concerning evidence of torture in Iraqi prisons were deleted, Information reported on Thursday. Two years later, Gade admitted in a parliamentary debate that the Defence Ministry was aware of some cases of “rough treatment of Iraqi prisoners”.

Adding to Gade’s troubles, one week ago, the new defence chief, General Knud Bartels, sent a letter to the current defence minister, Nick Hækkerup (Socialdemokraterne), claiming that Danish military had arrested some 500 Iraqis, not 200, as Gade and his successor Gitte Lillelund Bech (Venstre) claimed. Bartels also wrote that the military had had a systematic policy of allowing the British and Iraqi forces on joint missions to carry out actual arrests, in order to avoid incurring Danish responsibility under international law for ensuring the well-being of the prisoners.

Politiken newspaper published evidence on Wednesday confirming that the policy was explicit and came from the highest levels of the military, as outlined in a recently declassified memo written by the Defence Command in August 2004, titled “Directive for Use of Force”.

In one excerpt from the memo, the Defence Command wrote that Danish soldiers were to allow Iraqi and British soldiers to carry out arrests "in that way it is not a transfer of detainees from the Danish forces to Iraqi authorities."

Peter Viggo Jakobsen, a military expert from the Defence Academy, told Politiken that the wording of the memo left no doubt that the military’s top brass were aware in August 2004 that Iraqi authorities were torturing prisoners.

“You create just such a procedure with an eye to avoiding responsibility for something that you know full well stinks. That’s the whole point,” Jakobsen said.

Harlang, the lawyer for the six Iraqis who are suing the Defence Command, said that the new revelations were damning for the military.

“With the evidence that has now come to light from 2004 no-one can now say that they didn’t know what was happening,” Harlang told Information. “At the very least, it shows extreme negligence, and that they didn’t care whether the rules were being followed or what was happening to the Iraqi prisoners.”

In the wake of the new disclosures, MPs from the governing party Radikale and the government’s far-left ally Enhedslisten hinted that Gade could also face an impeachment hearing for failing to inform parliament of what he knew about torture in Iraqi prisons and for allowing the military to continue a policy of turning detainees over to them or turning a blind eye to their mistreatment.

Gade stepped down as defence minister in February 2010, after it was learned that military staff had fabricated a fraudulent Arabic translation of the book ‘Jæger – I krig med eliten’ (‘Special forces soldier – At war with the elite’) and leaked it to the tabloid B.T.

Gade and the Defence Command had been fighting to block the publication of the book, which was critical of the military’s actions in Afghanistan. They claimed the book contained material that threatened national security. The courts, however, disagreed and allowed its publication.

Shortly afterwards, Gade and military commanders announced that an Arabic translation of the book had been discovered on the internet – a supposed proof that hostile countries were interested in using the information against Denmark. However, the translation was so shoddy that it quickly raised suspicions that it was a fraud. It soon emerged that two officers were behind the fraud – a Google translation that did not even make sense in Arabic – as well as its leak to the press. Gade stepped down as defence minister shortly afterwards.

The torture trial is expected to begin in autumn 2012. Harling said that more such cases against Denmark were on the way.

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