Waterboarded by the British army

A Belfast court has posthumously awarded compensation to a man tortured and assaulted by British soldiers in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. Documents show the use of electric shocks and sexual assault were commonly inflicted on detainees.

Liam Holden was waterboarded by British soldiers. (Photo: Harte Coyle Collins Solicitors)
Liam Holden was waterboarded by British soldiers. (Photo: Harte Coyle Collins Solicitors)

The Belfast High Court has awarded over £1.3m in compensation to a man who, at the age of 18, was “waterboarded” by British military personnel into falsely confessing he had murdered a soldier – becoming the last man to be sentenced to death in Northern Ireland.

The death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment but Liam Holden, who died last September aged 65, still spent 17 years in jail before being cleared ten years ago of all charges and awarded £1m in exemplary damages.

Holden’s estate has now been awarded a further £350,000 against the Ministry of Defence (MoD) for the army’s waterboarding – a term which only became common after this form of torture was used against US detainees in Guantanamo.

Declassified documents found by the Pat Finucane Centre (PFC) in the National Archives, were provided to the court along with the personal testimonies of other torture victims given to the Association of Legal Justice (ALJ). 

The ALJ was formed in the 1970s and disbanded in the 1990s after taking over 4,000 statements from people alleging human rights abuses by the police and soldiers. 

The documents established that the use of electric shocks, sexual assault and other forms of torture were commonly inflicted on detainees in Northern Ireland.

Minutes of a meeting between Irish taoiseach Jack Lynch and British prime minister Edward Heath in November 1972 (National Archives)

Informing the PM

The PFC’s advocacy manager, in an affidavit given to Holden’s solicitor, Patricia Coyle, stated that the Irish taoiseach, Jack Lynch, had informed British prime minister Edward Heath of this use of torture in November 1972.

The minutes of their meeting record that a man with epilepsy (not Holden) “had been forced to lie on his back on the floor, a wet towel had been placed over his head and water had been poured over it to give him the impression that he would be suffocated”.

Lynch told Heath that Father Des Wilson, a priest in West Belfast, had informed him that local Catholics were so frustrated by the British army’s ill-treatment (amounting to torture) that “they no longer thought it was worthwhile” complaining and that he himself had been “beaten up by the Army”.

Holden, who was a trainee chef when he was arrested in 1972, was taken to a West Belfast primary school – which had been requisitioned as a base by the Paras – where he was threatened, assaulted, hooded and waterboarded by members of the regiment.  

At a court hearing in Belfast last week, his estate was awarded the additional £350,000 for assault, psychological damage, inhumane and degrading treatment, malicious prosecution, misfeasance in a public office and false imprisonment.

Liam Holden was subject to assault, psychological damage, inhumane and degrading treatment, malicious prosecution, misfeasance in a public office and false imprisonment (Photo supplied)

Fear of water

The judge outlined testimony given by Mr Holden before his death last year in which he described the waterboarding and its impact on his mental and physical health. He suffered a long-term fear of water, even being scared to use it when shaving or showering.

The judge also outlined expert medical evidence on how the state’s continuing refusal to acknowledge its role had impacted on both Holden’s mental and physical health. He had given evidence in the earlier hearing that only an apology would bring him relief.

“I don’t care about the soldiers that tortured me”, he had said in court. “I don’t care about the conviction. I don’t care about the years in jail – because I can never get them back… The closure I want is the document that says, ‘We know he is innocent.’”

“They have the documents to prove, without a shadow of a doubt, that I am innocent, and that’s where the hate comes from… I have to fight every step of the way to get one scrap of paper. … The case will never be done for me until that comes out.”

“I feel that they still think I am guilty. I want acknowledgement that I am telling the truth. I know they have the documents to prove I am innocent… I want a soldier to say ‘We did this.’”

‘Water was poured up my nose’

In a second case, referred to in the PFC affidavit, also found in the ALJ file, a man told of being put on top of a table and being held there by Special Branch officers of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). 

He said: “My head was placed over the side of the table while water was poured up my nose. It was then I agreed to sign. They told me it was that or they would shoot me.”

“They told me it was that or they would shoot me”

The PFC affidavit also cites the mother of another youth where four soldiers had held his arms and legs apart while they wrapped a towel around her son’s face. 

“They then emptied water over the towel which was round his face and started putting pressure on it. He got the feeling that he was either smothering or drowning.” 


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Electric shock treatment

The MoD were aware at the time that such torture was being meted out. 

The PFC has found one declassified document dated 14 December 1976 in which it is admitted that an out-of-court settlement should be offered because a man had been subjected to “electric shock treatment”. 

There was “extensive” medical evidence of “severe beating” and “No prospect of a successful defence”.

Apart from waterboarding and electric shocks, the British army used other insidious forms of torture including those of a sexual nature documented in the ALJ files. Victims were loath to speak out about or document this particularly humiliating treatment.

Nevertheless, there is documentation of men having billiard cues and other instruments – including an electric cattle prod type of device – inserted in their back passages – and even that vinegar was poured up one man’s anal passage.

If any of these people come forward, perhaps emboldened by Holden’s success, the MoD may find itself shelling out even more public money either in out-of-court or judicially-approved exemplary compensation awards.


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