Thompson describes prison's conditions post-screening
TORONTO — In a surprise appearance after the first Toronto screening of Abu Ghraib doc “The Prisoner, Or: How I Tried to Kill Tony Blair,” a U.S. soldier whose unit was stationed at the notorious Iraqi prison came forward to publicly condemn the American military’s handling of its detainees in Iraq.
“I just remember watching over these people. And I had to be the one holding the gun over them. That’s incredibly horrible,” said Spc. Benjamin Thompson. Though he said he had left active duty a year and half ago (he said his current status is “inactive ready reserve”) his civilian dress still looked martial on Friday: he wore an olive drab button-up shirt with baggy cargo-style olive courduroy pants.
Worldwide attention was focused on the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib after photos leaked out in 2004. Thompson said that while that small unit of the prison complex has been widely condemned, the poor conditions in which the majority of prisoners held at the prison — thousands deemed by the military to be of no intelligence value — lived in “is something that has completely not been talked about.”
After the graphic pictures of treatment of detaineers being tortured at Abu Ghraib first surfaced, Sgt. Joseph Darby came forward and admitted to be the source for the materials, making him the first to speak out condemning the activities of the 372nd Military Police Company and others involved in the abuse of Arab prisoners. In all, the U.S. Dept. of Defense removed 17 soldiers and officers from active duty. Seven of those were convicted of war crimes, sentenced to federal prison time and dishonorably discharged from service.
But what makes Thompson’s comments remarkable is that they concern those detainees who were not singled out for abuse, but rather held in the prison’s general population.
“The Prisoner” centers on the story of Iraqi journalist Yunis Khatayer Abbas, an Iraqi journalist who was detained by the military for nine months beginning in Sept. 2003. In the film, Abbas holds up the pair of underwear he wore while at Abu Ghraib on which he wrote down the names and prisoner numbers of others held in the camp who died from various causes, ranging from gunshots when they rioted over poor conditions or from the lack of medicine for chronic ailments.
Thompson, who guarded Abbas at the time, saw the doc for the first time Friday. “I was the one who searched him, so he got that past me,” Thompson said.
Thompson described what he saw when he was stationed at Abu Ghraib.
“We were always being attacked by insurgents. I wore body armor — they (detainees) didn’t. Food was always a problem. I wouldn’t have kept my dogs in those conditions.”
When approached by reporters after his remarks, an uncomfortable Thompson declined to be interviewed. He said the unit he served in was HHC 391 MP BN. While taking questions from the audience, he said he is currently a student, but declined to say where or what he was studying.
His apperance was not publicly announced before the screening, though some word had begun to leak around the fest. Michael Moore was on hand to see Thompson speak and commented afterward, “It’s humiliating to know this is being done in your name.”
Michael Tucker, who co-directed “The Prisoner” with Petra Epperlein, introduced Thompson and said the soldier had approached him via email as they were finishing the picture.
Abbas and three of his brothers were arrested and detained during a raid conducted by the U.S. Army unit Epperlein and Tucker followed for their 2004 doc “Gunner Palace.” In that film, he can be seen protesting to soldiers “I’m a journalist, you mistake this,” before being led away in handcuffs.
In the film, he details his transfer from holding facility to facility, including his rough interrogations, before arriving at Abu Ghraib.
The reference to Tony Blair in the new doc’s title is taken from the accusation made by interrogators that he was a terrorist working to assassinate the British prime minister.
In the film, Abbas describes how when he was released, he received an apology from an American officer but refused it. “I am not terrorist or monster. I am not Dracula. I am not money or cow. I am a man.”
Thompson said he worked with Abbas for five months while at Abu Ghraib, where Abbas served as “camp chief,” the prisoner designated to deal with guards. He made a point to say his views were solely his own and did not reflect those of others he served with.
After an audience member commented that Abbas appeared calm not angry in the doc, Thompson said, “You have to understand what this man has been through. He was dragged out of his house in the middle of the night. He watched people suffer from malnutrition. You can’t understand that kind of anger.”
(Chris Gardner contributed to this report.)