Inside the Torture Chamber: water boarding allegations against the army and RUC

Reconstruction of water boarding A documentary hears claims that water boarding was used during the Troubles (reconstruction image)

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The term water boarding has been widely used in recent years. Since the attack on the Twin Towers in 9/11, the previously little known interrogation technique has been a central and highly controversial part of the West's war against al-Qaeda.

Inside the Torture Chamber - a documentary to be broadcast on BBC Radio Ulster this Sunday - reveals that the technique was used 40 years ago by the Army in Northern Ireland.

It also hears an allegation that it was used by RUC detectives in Castlereagh police station, Belfast.

Liam Holden knows all about the technique. In September 1972, he was 19 years old when members of the Army's Parachute Regiment took him to their base on the Black Mountain in Belfast, where they accused him of killing a soldier.

They threatened to shoot him and then used another interrogation technique not known to have been used in Northern Ireland at the time.

Death sentence

"They got the bucket of water and they just slowly but surely poured the bucket of water right round the facial area, over my nose and mouth," Mr Holden said.

"It was like pouring a kettle of water, like pouring your tea into a cup out of the kettle, that sort of speed, basically until I passed out or close to passed out."

After several hours of interrogation, Mr Holden confessed to the murder.

He later gave his trial in Belfast Crown Court a detailed account of his interrogation, but neither the judge or jury believed him and he became the last person in the United Kingdom to be sentenced to death.

Liam Holden Liam Holden said the Army used water boarding to force him to confess to a murder he did not commit

He then spent four weeks in the condemned man's cell at Crumlin Road jail in Belfast, not knowing if each morning would be his last, before his sentence was commuted to life in prison.

Mr Holden then spent 17 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. His conviction was quashed by the Court of Appeal earlier this year.

Hanging cell

As part of the documentary he agreed to go back to Crumlin Road jail to visit the condemned man's cell - the cell where he would have been hanged - and to look at the white lines on a stone wall where prison officers had told him he would be buried.

"You were walking out that door and you saw where people had been buried who had been hung in Crumlin Road jail and you were sort of next in line," he said.

Start Quote

At that time I thought they were actually going to kill me”

End Quote Felim O Hamill

Féilim Ó hAdhmaill doesn't know Liam Holden, but said he was subjected to a similar interrogation technique in an attempt to force him to confess to a murder.

Now a lecturer at Cork University, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison after being caught in England in 1994 in a car containing explosives and a gun. He was released early under the Good Friday Agreement.

Back in 1978, he was interrogated by RUC detectives in Castlereagh police station in Belfast. Afterwards, he told a doctor that he had been subjected to a form of water torture.

"Somebody produced a towel, or what looked like a towel, and put this towel over my head and over my nose and mouth region and twisted it at the back and pulled my head down while they were holding my limbs," he told the programme.

"Somebody poured water over my nose and mouth region and they were shouting 'breathe it in'. It was terrifying if I am truthful......at that time I thought they were actually going to kill me."

Unfairly damaged

This is the only known allegation that members of the RUC used water boarding as an interrogation technique.

Castlereagh RUC station The documentary examines allegations of torture by the RUC at Castlereagh police station

The documentary also examines other allegations of torture by the RUC at Castlereagh police station, where dozens of paramilitary suspects claimed they were assaulted and forced to sign confessions.

Roger McCallum joined the police in 1976 after graduating with a law degree and rose to the rank of superintendent. Now a trustee of the RUC George Cross Foundation, he said the allegations have unfairly damaged the reputation of the RUC.

"For many years many brave men and women served the community, all the community in Northern Ireland and in the vast majority of cases, 98, 99 per cent of cases, without any problems whatsoever," he said.

Start Quote

The vast majority of people who have served with pride in the RUC were guilty of nothing along those lines whatsoever”

End Quote Roger McCallum RUC George Cross Foundation

"These allegations unfortunately will tarnish any organisation and it's unfortunate that they are made and unfortunate that one or two folk in the past have been guilty of something, but certainly the vast majority of people who have served with pride in the RUC were guilty of nothing along those lines whatsoever," Mr McCallum said.

The army has also been accused widespread torture of suspects. Veteran republican Kevin Hannaway was one of them. He was one of 14 so-called Hooded Men who were selected for what the army termed deep interrogation.

Bitten by dogs

They were hooded, beaten and then subjected to what were called the five techniques, which included food and sleep deprivation and being subjected to very loud noise for long periods.

He recalls how he was thrown out of a helicopter into a compound where he was bitten by dogs before beaten and then interrogated for 12 days.

"I don't think there's any words that could describe what we 14 men went through," he said. "If there's a hell I would say the other 13 men and I have been there and back again."

The five techniques the men were subjected to were later banned by the prime minister at the time, Edward Heath. They were also the subject of an investigation by the European Commission following a complaint from the Irish government.

In 1976, it ruled that the British government was guilty of torture and inhumane and degrading treatment.

Concerned by the damage to its international reputation, the government appealed and two years later, in 1978, the European Court ruled that while the five techniques amounted to inhumane and degrading treatment, they did not constitute torture.

Veteran journalist Peter Taylor, who has made several programmes and written a book about the allegations of torture in Northern Ireland, studied the ruling carefully.

"I always thought that the decision to delete the word torture and to agree a ruling that the British government had been guilty of inhumane and degrading treatment was the correct one in light of what actually happened," he said.

Inquiry

But what if the European Court had been aware of the allegations that the army and police had used water torture?

"I suspect it may have changed its decision and agreed with the Commission and gone along with torture," Mr Taylor said.

Patrick Corrigan, the director of Amnesty International in Northern Ireland, agrees. He believes there are sufficient grounds for an inquiry into allegations of the use of torture by the army and police, as well as republican and loyalist paramilitaries.

"We believe that if you carry out a crime, a crime under national or international law, you should be held accountable for that," he said.

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