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FACE THE FACTS
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Face the Facts
Transcript : Face the Facts - 20 July 2007
FACE THE FACTS

Iraqi Interpreters

Presenter: John Waite

TRANSMISSION: Friday 20th July 2007 1230-1300
BBC RADIO 4

TOPPLING THE STATUE CLIP
There it is. Twenty five years of hatred and rage, as they jump up on the statue, trouncing it with anything ...

WAITE
The 9th of April 2003 - and the moment more than any other that symbolised the literal downfall of Saddam when his statue in Baghdad's main square was torn down.

TOPPLING THE STATUE CLIP
... they're waving their fists in the air, they're chanting death to Saddam. They're clapping in the air ...

WAITE
For many Iraqis, the days shortly after the overthrow of Saddam were a time of optimism; of hope for a new democratic and prosperous country. And many came forward freely to work for the British and American forces and the Coalition Provisional Authority which would run Iraq until elections could be organised.

This week, however, we'll be investigating the price many of those Iraqis have paid for that help. And in particular the fate of many interpreters whose skills were so vital to the occupying forces. It's thought that around 6,000 interpreters signed up to work with the British and Americans. But by doing so, many fear that they signed their own death warrants too. Because, regarded by armed insurgents as "collaborators", many have been deliberately targeted and brutally murdered. Others have been forced to flee Iraq or to go into hiding with their families. And yet when they've turned for help to the very forces which employed them - their pleas all too often have fallen on deaf ears. Even if they tried to protect their identity - especially whilst translating at crucial interrogations - by helping the occupying powers, they themselves became targets.

LOAY
I remember one incident when we were up to arrest one of the [indistinct word] militia. I was wearing black balaclava but he just stood in my face and said: "If I know who you are I will kill you someday".

WAITE
And that was not an idle threat. The Ministry of Defence told us it only knows of four deaths among interpreters - which had occurred whilst they were working alongside British forces. But, as we'll be reporting, many more interpreters have been murdered on the streets, in their homes as a reprisal. In fact we estimate that as many as 250 Iraqi civilian interpreters who've worked for the coalition have been killed during the conflict. That's almost a hundred more than the death toll among British soldiers.

WHEATLEY
The interpreter is on the frontline, it's actually the interpreter who is standing talking to Iraqis in the street or maybe even the insurgents.

WAITE
So they're literally the voice of the British forces?

WHEATLEY
They are the voice of the British forces, no one else in the British force is able to communicate with these people, so they have to use Iraqi native speakers.

WAITE
Alan Wheatley is General Secretary of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting - which represents some 3,000 members in 40 countries across the world. Members whose role goes far beyond merely translating one language into another.

WHEATLEY
The interpreter offers a method of communication that brings trust and understanding in very, very difficult circumstances. They understand the Iraqi culture. An interpreter is also a local knowledge specialist. They're one of the key factors in bringing democracy to these countries.

ALI (Phone call)

WAITE
This is Mr Ali - we're withholding his real name because he fears that
revealing it could jeopardise the lives of both him and his family. He's 65 years old, and, before the war, was a successful and well paid computer systems analyst in Iraq. Life changed dramatically, however, after both he and his 27-year-old son took jobs with the British Forces, and then with the US and British led Coalition Provisional Authority.

Mr Ali enjoyed his job as one of the most senior of interpreters, but he also came to realise that doing it meant he had become a marked man among the armed militia groups who were opposing the coalition forces. Fellow interpreters began to be targets - his closest colleague and her husband were gunned down in the street. The husband was killed, and though his wife survived she has three bullets lodged in her body. We spoke to her for the making of this programme but her current employers wouldn't permit her to be recorded.

So Mr Ali was in no doubt about the dangers he was facing - and with which, one day last December, he was to come face to face when gunmen visited his family home.

ALI
It was about two o'clock in the afternoon and we were expecting visitors to come - my wife in the kitchen making cakes and dips and this and that. When the door was knocked I thought it was the guests. So I walked to the door and my wife was behind me and we opened the door and there were three people - men - standing there with guns. They handcuffed us from behind, they put blindfold on our eyes and they put Sellotape on my mouth. They were asking about the safe and the guns, whether we have guns. I was trying to reply to them but because of the Sellotape I couldn't do anything. But I felt somebody knelt in front of me and I think he inserted a knife to make a slit, so I could talk to him. At that moment my son came in and I heard my son saying what's happening, who are you? They saying we are from the Madhi Army and we are here because you cooperated with them and we're here to kill you - you and your son.

WAITE
They told you then - we're here because you cooperated with the British, with the coalition?

ALI
And your son.

WAITE
So you thought you were going to die?

ALI
Yes I knew, I knew that my son and my wife. It seemed to me they want to try to put more pressure on me because they took their blindfold off my eyes. It's not easy to see a gun pointed at your son.

WAITE
No.

ALI
I saw my son lying on his stomach with a hood on his head with a gun behind his back. My wife - I saw her blindfolded also. I couldn't sleep for a long time. The only thing I can tell you is God moves in a mysterious way. He just - our time was not up.

WAITE
So what happened - they just went?

ALI
They just said okay, I don't think they need to be killed. While the other one said - Look we came here to kill them. So the boss, who was standing in the middle, I don't know, he just turned and said - Okay we'll give you four days, if I come back in four days and see you I'm going to kill all of you.

WAITE
Mr Ali knew the threat was serious. And so the family fled Iraq immediately - too frightened to even go to the bank to withdraw their savings. In fact, it was not the first time that Mr Ali had been intimidated. In January 2006 - two years after he quit working as an interpreter - militia gunmen had ordered he close down the shop he had opened because its customers included soldiers and coalition personnel. He knew that a so-called death list of "collaborators" had been drawn up by the Madhi Army - the armed wing of the radical Shi'ite movement led by Muqtada Al Sadr. And being such a senior interpreter, he was certain that his name would be on it.

So why did Mr Ali quit his comfortable life as a systems analyst before the invasion, to take a job with the Coalition Provisional Authority in the first place.

ALI
When the CPA started you've got to understand they inherit something bad; you know they inherit poverty, they inherit no electricity, no water, not much money in the pocket, people starve, people hungry, people ill. I believed Iraq will progress with the help of the coalition, I help the British coalition to help my country.

WAITE
Mr Ali didn't sign up for the money - he took a drop from $800 a month to just over 200 to work for the British in a series of ever more senior interpreting positions. He was pleased, he says, to see the back of Saddam and to help build a better Iraq in the fallen dictator's wake. A desire for a better future that inspired many Iraqis to offer their services to the coalition.

ALDERSON
They very much believed that this was the bright new hope. We had come to bring stability because if - as one of them once put it - if the British and Americans if they can land a man in the moon well they can bring us electricity.

WAITE
It was Andrew Alderson there who recruited Mr Ali, and dozens of others, to work for Iraq's Coalition Provisional Authority. He's a Major in the Territorial Army and was posted to a tour of duty in Iraq in 2003. Because of his background in merchant banking, however, he ended up being the chief financial administrator for Basra and the whole of southern Iraq with a budget of billions of dollars to help re-build the country. None of that could go ahead, he says, without skilled interpreters - although the recruitment process for them was somewhat unorthodox.

ALDERSON
You've got to try and figure out who's real and who isn't and who's got an agenda and who hasn't. So often it would be through word of mouth, once we'd found one person you'd find that - you'd think well okay I trust what you're saying, look 'em in the eye - there's no recruitment agency in Basra you can ring up and say look I'm looking for five interpreters wondered if you could help. Instead you've got to get out there and just pad the pavements.

WAITE
So there wasn't really a set procedure - it was pretty informal, had to be?

ALDERSON
Yes, absolutely.

WAITE
Mr Ali was recruited in just this way, and spent an initial four months as a translator for the British Army. Then he was promoted to the burgeoning Coalition Provisional Authority.

ALI
I was in the middle between the Iraqis and the British. Appointments, finding out what was required. I used to go out and bring the information. That is why the director always says to me you are my eyes and my ears.

WAITE
For all his hard work though - as the eyes and ears of the British - Mr Ali was intimidated, his shop closed down and a very real threat made on the life of both him and his family. And yet when they were forced to flee Iraq, and eventually made their way to this country in January this year, those self same British authorities were less than understanding when it came to Mr Ali's claim for political asylum and he was refused the right to stay here. In his application he'd outlined why he had a "well founded fear of persecution" if he returned to Iraq - detailing the incident in which he, his son and his wife were all bound, gagged and blindfolded and had guns pressed to their heads. His British employer in Basra may have found him "completely trustworthy". In its reply to his application, however, the Home Office clearly did not:

HOME OFFICE RESPONSE TO APPLICATION
Although it is accepted that incidents like you have described do happen in Iraq it is not accepted that this happened to you. Therefore you would not be able to justify a well-founded fear of persecution. It is believed that the Madhi Army were only targeting your son and you exaggerated the risk to include yourself and your wife. In the light of all the evidence available it has been concluded that you do not qualify for asylum.

ALI
I don't have any proof, you know, except my wife's word, my son's word and myself because I was there with my wife when they came in and my son came later and we went through these ordeals - three of us. People living in front of me did see these three people going in and going out, they could link them to the militia.

WAITE
The Home Office also said that the threats from the militia were only directed at your son and not at you and your wife.

ALI
My car is a Caprice white and my son's car is BMW maroon. When they came to the house my car alone was in front of the house, myself, they came after me but it was a bonus when my son came later.

WAITE
And they got him too.

ALI
And they got him too, like I told the Home Office.

WAITE
And so when we first spoke to Mr Ali he was facing the prospect of having to leave Britain. Meanwhile, the ongoing perils for interpreters in Iraq are being highlighted in a series of video films, taken by insurgents, of their often bloody and brutal fate. Alan Wheatley, who represents interpreters around the world, has seen such a video, and the horrifying message the footage is meant to send out.

WHEATLEY
An Iraqi interpreter had been filmed being dragged out of his house into the middle of the street, his throat was cut with a blunt knife and he was stabbed in the chest a number of times and then died in the street. They film their death squads and then they circulate the movie and this is to warn others not to work for the coalition forces.

LOAY
In the beginning it was just $60 a month and it's nothing in Iraq.

WAITE
Like Mr Ali and his family, Loay Mohammed Al-Tahar, another interpreter, fled from Iraq after receiving death threats. That was in March, four months ago. He began working for the British in July 2003, again just a couple of months after Saddam's statue was toppled.

LOAY
Patrolling with the British soldiers gave me security in the south area of Basra. And then training the INGs - the Iraq National Guards - IPS - Iraqi Police - and recently detention operation of local known terrorists.

WAITE
Loay too signed up out of political idealism. And worked on even though, around him, fellow interpreters were being targeted and murdered. Skills and bravery that were much appreciated by the British Forces. As this reference from a Major of The Devonshire and Dorset Light Infantry illustrates.

READING - MAJOR REFERENCE
His interpreting was invaluable in allowing us to do things such as starting development projects, rebuilding schools, conducting joint patrols with the Iraqi Army and joint vehicle check points with the Iraqi police and carrying out arrest operations against well known terrorists. Loay put himself in considerable danger to do all of this, not only did he take the same risks as me and my men whilst on patrol but he was also working in an atmosphere of intimidation and fear.

LOAY
Two of my interpreters have been assassinated and I got a threat text message from them saying that if I'm not going to stop working with British I will be killed.

WAITE
Did you believe that?

LOAY
Yes of course because they did it before with two of my fellow interpreters.

WAITE
What happened to them?

LOAY
The first one - they kidnapped him and tortured him and then he got a bullet in the head.

WAITE
A bullet in the head?

LOAY
Yeah, bullet in the head. And the second one they just beheaded him.

WAITE
And did you think that you were next?

LOAY
Yeah, that's why I left Iraq.

WAITE
Before leaving though Loay did make attempts to ask one of his military employers for better protection.

LOAY
They said we will protect you inside camps but we cannot protect you at home or on your way home.

WAITE
Loay is now living in Damascus, on savings which he expects to run out soon. He's separated from his mother and five brothers and sisters who still live in Iraq. With no prospect of returning, Loay has pinned his hopes on being able make an application for asylum to Britain - or any country which will take him. A process which has already taken nearly five months.

In the House of Lords, Baroness Northover speaks for the Liberal Democrats on international development. And after a visit to Jordan last December, she raised the plight of Iraqi refugees and in particular those interpreters and others who like Loay worked for the coalition.

BARONESS NORTHOVER IN THE LORDS
Why haven't the hundred or so Iraqis who've left that country and fled to Syria and Jordan who fear for their lives because they helped the British forces been given asylum?

WAITE
The reply, from her ministerial opposite number, Baroness Amos, was that refugees were being dealt with on a "case-by-case" basis. An approach, Baroness Northover told us, that she believes is not good enough. Britain has a moral responsibility, she says, to help those relatively few Iraqi interpreters that it employed and so thereby imperilled.

BARONESS NORTHOVER
In the case of the British forces it seems that there are about 50 translators in Syria, maybe about the same number in Jordan. And they know that their lives are at particular risk. It's very easy to identify who they are - they've worked with the British Army. They've had to do things like undertake the interrogations. And so therefore often it was the interpreter who was face-to-face with whoever was being questioned. Not surprisingly some of those interpreters have been killed and others of their colleagues have fled out of Iraq and we owe them a particular responsibility. You can separate out the smaller group and immediately give asylum to these people without opening any floodgates. To address this is something that they would rather not do, they'd rather sweep it under the carpet or pretend, as they seem to be doing as well, that this is a responsibility simply for the international community and that we don't have a particular responsibility here.

WAITE
That feeling of being swept under the carpet is certainly one that Loay has experienced, living as he is in exile in Syria.

LOAY
For example when I've been to the British Embassy, I couldn't get in, the guard said - we're not allowed to let you in because you are an Iraqi and we've got informed from British staff not to let any Iraqi in, whatever he is, whatever - they just didn't let us in.

WAITE
So much for being dealt with on a case-by case basis. But at least Loay has escaped Iraq. Yatsi - not his real name - remains in hiding there, unable to get himself and his family - a wife, three children and an elderly father - out. He has been threatened by the militia, as has his brother, and so rarely leaves the safe house where all of his family live some distance from the nearest Iraqi town. We therefore had to speak to him on a very variable mobile phone line. Yatsi's skills as a senior interpreter were welcomed by a series of British army units for three years. Turning to a former colleague these days however, for help to get out - and it's a very different story.

YATSI
He said well what can we do for you, I told him he can do nothing for me, just to help me to leave the country. He said well I will talk to my superiors. Then we arranged a date to meet but he wasn't able to meet me and also when I tried to phone him he doesn't answer me. I used my wife's phone to call him then he answered because he didn't know the number. And even I phoned another military base, until now I'm trying to call them but no answer and no help.

WAITE
But that's because - according to Colonel Mike Dewar, a defence analyst and former commanding officer who's seen at first hand the work of interpreters in Bosnia and Iraq - the risks that arise because of the job, have to be accepted as part of the job.

DEWAR
People bend over backwards to ensure that the circumstances within which they work are as safe and as advantageous to them as possible but you know we have to live in the real world here, they are not members of the Armed Forces, they may be experiencing the same danger but for a start they're not British nationals therefore they don't qualify to be members of the Armed Forces, secondly they haven't undergone the same training, they cannot be regarded in the same manner as serving members of the Armed Forces.

WAITE
Well, that may be the position - but should it be, asks Andrew Alderson - the Territorial Army Major who recruited staff like Mr Ali for the Coalition Provisional Authority? During his time in Basra, he felt strongly that any interpreter who shared the same risks should receive the same treatment, although he ran into opposition, he told us, when he tried to put this into practise.

ALDERSON
We took a line within our organisation and our administration that these people were so key to what we were doing that they should have the same status. Do I not have the same duty of care to all of my staff, regardless of race, religion, creed? So why is it suddenly different if I have local staff? I should surely be giving them the same degree of protection. But there were times when that was resisted because it was seen well they're sort of somehow different.

WHEATLEY
I think that the British government are acting shamefully. They must accept that they have a responsibility to those who work for them in Iraq, in fact in any other area of the world, and they should be looking to offer adequate security to protect them and their immediate families.

WAITE
Whatever Alan Wheatley's view, the fact is there's no international protocol to protect civilian employees, like interpreters, who take jobs with occupying forces. Instead, they have to depend entirely on the goodwill of their employers, or former employers. And as we've heard today, many have found that goodwill doesn't seem to extend outside of Iraq or even as far as ensuring their personal security outside of their working day.

Well, no minister at any of the government departments we approached was available to be interviewed. Indeed goodwill at the Foreign Office didn't even run to providing a statement. Officials said they were too busy. The Ministry of Defence, however, did respond - to our question as to whether the MOD shouldn't offer greater protection outside of work to their Iraqi interpreters.

MOD STATEMENT
The UK government takes very seriously its responsibility towards local employees on operations. We value and appreciate their significant contribution towards helping British forces in operations. As you would expect every measure possible, within the constraints of the operational environment is taken to ensure their security whilst in our employment. In Iraq, as in other theatres of operation, we consider any specific request for assistance from serving or ex-employees on their individual merits.

Next we turned to the Home Office. If - as the MOD states - personal safety can't be guaranteed - even to interpreters known to be at severe risk - shouldn't the fact that they've put their lives on the line to help the British rebuild a better Iraq, enable them to be fast-tracked through the UK's asylum system rather than go on living in hiding, or in exile?

HOME OFFICE STATEMENT
All asylum and human rights claims are assessed on their individual merits and Iraqis who meet the definition of a refugee under the 1951 Geneva Convention are granted asylum.


There is clearly a difficult position in some parts of Iraq but we do not accept this applies to all areas. We continue to monitor developments in Iraq and only return those who are not at risk of persecution and do not need humanitarian protection.

WAITE
Which rather contrasts with the attitude of other governments. The United States, for example, has increased its quota of immigrant visas for Iraqi and Afghan interpreters who've worked for US troops and embassies from 50 a year to 500.

Norway is offering visas to interpreters and their families who've worked for the Norwegian military in Iraq.

And most recently, Denmark has airlifted 200 Iraqis who've worked for Danish troops as interpreters out of the country.

However there is one piece of good news - Mr Ali - whose original application for asylum here had been turned down. We sent details of his case and all the others we've featured to the Home Office during the making of this programme. And 10 days ago, he heard that the decision to refuse him asylum had been overturned.
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