For Jim Auld, it began at a house party. On August 9, 1971, while he and his friends drank pints of beer and danced to the Rolling Stones in their nationalist neighborhood of West Belfast, the government of Northern Ireland and the British Army launched “Operation Demetrius.” Auld strolled back to his parents’ house around 3:30 a.m. and thought it was odd that the lights were still on. He found the door already open, and a man with a rifle waiting for him on the other side. Soldiers jumped out from the bushes and shoved him inside.
Auld’s memory of that evening remains sharp because of what followed: He and 13 other Irish Catholics were subjected to treatment that on Tuesday the European Court of Human Rights declared “inhumane and degrading,” but rejected to revise as legally torture. The government took the men to a secret detention facility and used them as guinea pigs to perfect what would later be called the “Five Techniques.” The court had originally ruled in 1978 that the treatment was not severe or cruel enough to be classified as torture.
In 2014, the Irish government appealed to have the case revised after an investigation uncovered that high cabinet British government officials had authorized the detainment and hid evidence from the court showing the treatment’s long-lasting effects. An all-star legal team, including Amal Clooney, represented the men.
Although the British government banned the use of the Five Techniques in 1972, the country’s military would go on to use them until at least 2003, when they resulted in the death of Baha Mousa, an Iraqi civilian detainee. The U.S. also adopted and fine-tuned the same methods for use after the September 11, 2001 attacks. The Bush administration cited the European court’s 1978 verdict in defense of its so-called enhanced interrogation techniques during the war on terror. Similarly, the Israeli government used the verdict to defend itself against accusations of torturing Palestinian detainees. The fate of the 14 Irishmen – who became known as the “Hooded Men” because their heads were hooded through their interrogations – had international ramifications.
Four of the men – Sean McKenna, Michael Montgomery, Patrick Shivers, and Gerry McKerr – are not alive to see the latest ruling in the case. But it was a disappointing day for the 10 surviving members of the group – Jim Auld, Kevin Hannaway, Francis McGuigan, Patrick J. McClean, Michael J. Donnelly, Davy Rodgers, Liam Shannon, Patrick McNally, Brian Turley, and Joseph Clarke – who had hoped that the court would declare they were tortured.
The executive director of Amnesty International Ireland, Colm O’Gorman, described the ruling as “regrettable.” The judges focused on a narrow legal technicality, he said, rather than addressing the substance of the torture claims. Because the case was a request to revise an earlier judgment and not a fresh case, the court debated whether the new evidence would have impacted the original 1978 decision, not what it would mean in today’s society. “We are quite confident what was done to these men would be deemed as torture by the court in today’s terms if this case were heard afresh,“ said O’Gorman.
Grainne Teggart, Amnesty’s Northern Ireland campaign manager, said the court had “missed a vital opportunity to put right a historic wrong.“ She added: “The ‘Hooded Men’ have been denied justice for too long.“
There is one final option for the men in the European Court of Human Rights. They could request that the case be submitted to the court’s Grand Chamber. Case coordinator Jim McIlmurray, who brought the men together in 2011 for the first time in 40 years, said they were ready to go on to the next step and would be pursuing all avenues. The group is also pursuing a case through the court of appeals in Belfast for an independent inquiry into the events of 1971.
As a teenager, Auld had split his time between chasing girls and demonstrating in the marches of the civil rights movement, as the minority Catholic group in Northern Ireland fought back against discrimination. It was one of those protests that, in October 1968, ended in riots – and sparked the 30-year conflict known as the “Troubles.”
Northern Ireland is at the tip of Ireland, occupying about one-sixth of its landmass. When its southern neighbor broke away from England in 1922, Northern Ireland stayed under British governance. Afterward, the region became fiercely divided between Protestant unionists who supported staying under British rule and minority Catholic nationalists, like Auld and his family, who felt they belonged to the Irish Republic.
Auld remembers the Troubles percolating in the months beforehand. Every night, the television had shown police suppressing rioters. But it all felt distant until the moment he says he saw armed Protestant paramilitary gangs, which sometimes included police and military, charging into his neighborhood and burning down houses. During riots in 1969, many houses — mostly Catholic — were burned, and thousands of Catholics were forced out of their homes.
Auld sat for an interview with The Intercept and recounted his memories in detail. The European Court of Human Rights has acknowledged Auld’s testimony and the government of Northern Ireland has not denied his version of events. The Northern Ireland office of the U.K. government did not respond to Auld’s allegations, but a spokesperson stated, “We continue to condemn unreservedly the use of torture or inhumane treatment.”
When the authorities arrested Auld on August 9, 1971, he says he immediately started taking his jacket off, so his parents could bear witness that he had no bruises before the soldiers arrested him. The authorities were looking for anyone suspected of association with the Irish Republican Army, better known as the IRA, a paramilitary group proscribed as a terrorist organization in the U.S. and the U.K. In response to escalating violence, the government passed a law enabling authorities to indefinitely detain suspected terrorists without trial.
Auld says a British military captain assured him, “While you’re with me Mr. Auld, I guarantee nothing will happen.” The soldiers loaded him into the back of a truck and took him to a local detention center. When they offloaded him, he says the captain told him, “You’re no longer under my custody,” and a guard hit Auld over the back of the head with a rifle butt.
The government detained about 350 men, mostly Catholics, between August 9 and 10, but selected Auld as one of only 14 for “deep interrogation” in a secret facility in Ballykelly, a lonesome village in the far north of the country. Before being taken away, Auld glimpsed his friends Kevin Hannaway, Francis McGuigan, and Joe Clarke. He says one of the soldiers gave him a cigarette and told him, “Here, you poor bastard. You’re going to need that.” That’s when he realized that things were serious. The guards placed a hood over his head.
“A human being looked at me and approved me to be tortured.”
A couple of weeks before his arrest, Auld had picked up a Newsweek magazine at the dentist’s office. A picture of an American helicopter in Vietnam stretched across two pages and “circled in the middle was a figure that had just been thrown out … to be killed,” said Auld. This is what he thought of when he heard the sound of a helicopter and the guards loaded him onto it. The next thing he’d felt was a boot on his back. He didn’t have time to see his life flash before his eyes; he landed about 6 feet below, the helicopter had been hovering just off the ground.
When he arrived at the Ballykelly facility, a doctor had examined Auld and ruled him fit for interrogation. To this day, Auld is still in disbelief. “A human being looked at me and approved me to be tortured.” Part of Tuesday’s appeal hinged on documentation that a doctor had misled the court by saying that the effects of the ill treatment were short-lived, all the while knowing their long-lasting impact. The court did not find this evidence convincing. They ruled that even if the doctor had provided misleading evidence, it could not be said that that would have influenced a finding of torture. They concluded that there was simply not enough scientific evidence at that time.
The Five Techniques are wall standing (the stress position), hooding, subjection to noise, deprivation of sleep, and deprivation of food and drink. The guards had placed Auld standing with his hands against the wall with his fingers spread. When he moved, they beat him. When he fell, they lifted him and put him back against the wall. After a while, he didn’t mind the beatings, as they “were allowing your blood to circulate and giving you a relief from that heavy numbness,” he said. This went on for at least seven days and nights.
The guards had removed the hood only once during his detainment. A bright light was shined into his eyes, and a voice repeatedly asked, “Who do you know in the IRA?” Auld had said he didn’t know anyone. “It was like something out of a movie,” he recalled. He told them names of two famous republican paramilitary leaders who had appeared regularly on the television. “Trust me, if I had known anyone, I would have told them,” he said.
It is not clear why Auld had been selected out of the 350 men initially rounded up. It is possible that geography played a factor. At first, there were only 12 men taken in for interrogation, four from each of the three provinces, according to the 1974 book called “The Guineapigs.” Questioned about whether he had any obvious links to the IRA, Auld responds that even if he had, no human should have been treated the way he was. The government never charged him with a crime.
He had passed in and out of consciousness. He had hallucinated. He had no access to a toilet. They fed him only once, but his mouth was too dry to eat, having not drunk water for three days. In the background, there had been a constant noise that he thought would drive him mad.
Auld didn’t think the government would possibly allow him out alive. During one of the 10 or 15 times he remembers collapsing during his interrogations, he identified a heating pipe running along the bottom of the wall. He had tried to throw his head against it to kill himself. When he would regain consciousness, he bawled upon realizing that his worst nightmare had come true: He was still alive.
When the guards released Auld from Ballykelly, they had detained him in prison for nine months before admitting him to a mental hospital for “blackouts,” a likely symptom of post-traumatic stress. “I’d start thinking about what happened and my brain would just shut off,” said Auld. After a few weeks, he realized he could check himself out. He says he signed the papers, walked out the door, and took the bus home to his astonished family.
Auld had a difficult time adjusting back to life afterward. He couldn’t settle in a job. He went back to a mental hospital. Auld had received a payment of about £16,000 ($22,600) after a settlement in the courts in Belfast. He bought a blue sports car. He found satisfaction working in conflict resolution with youth who had experienced violence because he felt he had “an empathy.”
He had no idea that the government of Ireland, in 1976, had taken a case to the European Commision of Human Rights. He says no one had consulted him. Ireland initially won the case. But two years later, the government of Northern Ireland appealed it in a higher court, which reversed the ruling.
Auld only realized that others had experienced the Five Techniques some 25 years later, when he heard a talk by Moazzam Begg, a former Guantánamo detainee and outreach director of Cage, a London-based organization that campaigns against abuses of counterterrorism powers. Auld says that he and Begg discussed their respective experiences. Auld had not been able to speak to anyone before about his ordeal because, as he puts it, “It’s not great dinner conversation.”
He became angry when he realized that even though the British government had banned the techniques in 1972, Begg endured similar treatment while he was at Guantánamo. This was proof to Auld that the brutal British methods had been exported and expanded upon.
It wasn’t until 2014 that new evidence would come to light. Documents uncovered by Irish broadcaster RTE revealed that the British government lied to the European Court of Human Rights about the severity of the techniques and the long-term physical and psychological consequences for the victims. The documents also revealed that the Secretary of Defense, Peter Carrington, had authorized the interrogation tactics, and that Prime Minister James Callaghan knew about it.
The memos showing the involvement of ministers in high positions formed a key part of Ireland’s request to reopen the case. But on Tuesday, the court ruled that the documents demonstrated nothing new. The court said the original 1978 hearing had been well aware that the harsh methods had been signed off at a high level.
The ruling was delivered amid a newly reignited debate in the U.S. around the use of torture, after the Trump administration announced Gina Haspel would be the new head of the CIA. Haspel previously oversaw a secret prison in Thailand, where the agency’s officers had used torture methods such as waterboarding, according to a declassified report published in 2014. The extent of Haspel’s involvement in the abusive techniques is not yet known. She will have to have to answer questions about her role during her Senate confirmation.
Auld felt that if the court had revised the ruling, it could have set a precedent, establishing that any use of the Five Techniques after 1978 amounted to torture. He felt that the judges overseeing the case did not want to deal with the immense implications that a revision may have caused. He was remarkably cheery after hearing the news and ready to pursue the case as long as it took to get justice.
Now, Auld lives in a quiet part of Belfast. He works part-time with a conflict resolution organization, dissuading paramilitaries like the IRA from using violence in their informal justice systems. Days before the court’s decision, Auld says he traveled to the city of Derry to dissuade someone from delivering a “kneecapping,” the trademark paramilitary punishment of shooting someone in the knee. On the weekends, he takes his peregrine falcon to the woods to hunt and find some kind of peace.
Summer Eldemire’s reporting from Belfast was suppported by New York University’s Global Beat Program.