The Sunday Herald, 27 March 2011

Text © The Sunday Herald. Illustrations added by EthicalCensus

Thousands of people say they will boycott the census because of Iraq abuse claims against the parent company of a data processing firm

CAMPAIGNERS vowing to boycott today’s census over its ties to a firm implicated in the Abu Ghraib torture scandal in Iraq are unlikely to face prosecu­tion, according to the man in charge of today’s population count.

In an exclusive interview with the Sunday Herald, Duncan Macniven, the Registrar General for Scotland, said secur­ing prosecutions against census dodgers was a “bore” and admitted only enough fines were given out to act as a deterrent.

Thousands of Scots are expected to refuse to fill in the 28-page questionnaire in protest at the awarding of the census data processing contract to CACI (UK).

Its American parent company is facing lawsuits, which are waiting to be heard by the US Supreme Court, over allegations Iraqi prisoners were tortured by CACI interrogators working for the US military at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

The photographs of naked and abused detainees, released in 2004, shook the world and were the darkest chapter in the history of the US Army since the My Lai massacre in Vietnam in 1968.

The firm accepts its staff worked at Abu Ghraib but denies involvement in the abuse and says none of its employees appeared in the notorious photographs.

Macniven said the cost of chasing census dodgers was “astronomical” and added: “Prosecution is a bore for us. It’s a hassle for us, it’s a hassle for them. We only pros­ecute enough folk to show that it is not an empty threat, because our research shows the threat of a penalty does have a moti­vating effect on many people. We are after a completed questionnaire rather than a completed prosecution.”

The census data is used to plan future public services and distribute local govern­ment funding.

Macniven’s comments were welcomed by leading ‘consciencious objectors’ who were outraged by the revelations in the Sunday Herald back in 2008 that CACI was awarded the £18.5m contract.

A petition condemning the deal was signed by campaigners, including journal­ist John Pilger, politician Tony Benn, and writers Iain Banks, Alasdair Gray and Tom Leonard. Campaigners wrote to MSPs and handed leaflets out in Scottish cities in recent weeks. Muslim groups are particu­larly outraged.

The contract was awarded in June 2008 despite two CACI contractors, working for 205th Militiary Intelligence Brigade, being named among those suspected of the abuse in the Taguba report – a US Army investigation into Abu Ghraib. One CACI man was fired when inves­tigators found he ordered untrained soldiers to physically abuse detainees to prepare them for interrogation.

Macniven said yesterday he believed he had read a ‘synopsis’ of that report before awarding the contract. He said he was alerted to the allegations by CACI during the tendering proc­ess, adding: “The company told us about it. It was not a ques­tion of finding out something that was secret. Even though [the US Army] took action against their own military personnel who were involved, and they court martialled them … they did not take action against the CACI folk.  It seems to me the evidence was not enough to prove the case.

“It’s an irrelevance. My sentiments would be different had there been no proof then and proof had emerged, but no proof has emerged.”

Richard Haley, of civil liberties group Scots Against Criminalising Communities and leader of the boycott, said he was “heartened” by the Registrar General’s comments on prosecution and added: “The basis of our campaign is that prosecution is extremely difficult. It suggests they are beginning to realise what a serious mistake it was to have this contract awarded. It would be a disgrace if the Procurator Fiscal brought a case to court.

“The abuse at Abu Ghraib continues to poison relations between the US and its allies and the Arab and Islamic world, as well as sickening people everywhere.” Close to 200,000 families did not fill in their questionnaire  in the last census in 2001 – but only three people were prosecuted, figures released under Freedom of Information Laws show. It resulted in one fine of £200 and two of £50.

A subsequent report said census staff felt gathering evidence against census dodgers was “complicated and time-consuming” because they had to secure confessions under oath from the head of the house that they refused to fill in their census. It also said staff were “overloaded with many thousands of cases” making it “impossible” to arrange interviews.

The US Supreme Court is debating whether to hear two cases brought by more than 250 Iraqis who claim they were abused by CACI contractors hired to interrogate and translate at Abu Ghraib. Their lawyers say they were sexually assaulted, beaten and subject to electric shocks and mock executions.

CACI is pleading immunity from prosecution in the US courts, arguing that as a private company it is not bound by laws allowing foreigners to sue the US for human rights abuses. Lawyers also claim they are covered by laws that prevent soldiers being sued for activities on the battlefield.

Macniven said under EU procurement law he was not allowed to rule CACI out of the tendering process without the allegations being proven in court.

Asked whether he would have liked to have ruled them out, he said: “We have to act within the law.” Campaigners say that decision should be subject to an investigation by the Scottish Parliament.

In a statement CACI said: “In spring 2004 an allegation was made that a CACI employee had been involved in the mistreatment of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. This allegation was not substantiated by any evidence or proof at the time it was made, and subsequent investigations by CACI and the US government could not confirm it.

“No CACI employee was ever depicted in the shocking and disturbing photos seen in the press at the time. Seven years on, the allegation remains unfounded and unproven. No CACI employee has ever been charged with any wrongdoing.

“If an employee of CACI had been found to be involved in such behaviour we would have taken swift and appropriate action.

“We have, and always will, hold ourselves to the highest ethical standards.”

Macniven also sought to allay fears that personal information submitted could be leaked. Some freedom of information campaigners warn the rise of digital data-gathering puts the public at risk of their private details being shared around the world.

Details of names, addresses, occupations and incomes of Scots families would be invaluable to the direct marketing industry.

Anonymised census data about areas is given freely by the Registrar’s office to market research and political polling firms such as Experian, but the market value of house-by-house data is far higher, with stores selling customer data for around £120 per £1000 names. Anyone who obtained the full census with millions of entries could make a fortune.

Macniven said that leaking the census is an offence punishable by up to two years in prison. The census operation was inspected by a team of computer scientists in the wake of the Wikileaks saga and given a clean bill of health.

More Information from EthicalCensus

Facts, lies and allegations: Scotland’s Registrar General Duncan Macniven persists in complaining that the arguments against CACI’s involvement in the census are founded on “allegations” that he describes as “unproven” and “unfounded.” He is is misrepresenting the argument.

EU procurement rules: what the rules really say

Non-cooperation: Advice on how to avoid co-operating with the census

Flyer: (pdf document) Spread the word – download, print and distribute this flyer

Fears CIA may hack Scottish census secrets – Sunday Express article

 

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