It's right that the government and media should be concerned about the treatment the 15 captured marines and sailors are receiving in Iran. Faye Turney's letters bear the marks of coercion, while parading the prisoners in front of TV cameras was demeaning. But the outrage expressed by ministers and leader writers is curious given the recent record of the "coalition of the willing" on the way it deals with prisoners.
Turney may have been "forced to wear the hijab", as the Daily Mail noted with fury, but so far as we know she has not been forced into an orange jumpsuit. Her comrades have not been shackled, blindfolded, forced into excruciating physical contortions for long periods, or denied liquids and food. As far as we know they have not had the Bible spat on, torn up or urinated on in front of their faces. They have not had electrodes attached to their genitals or been set on by attack dogs.
They have not been hung from a forklift truck and photographed for the amusement of their captors. They have not been pictured naked and smeared in their own excrement. They have not been bundled into a CIA-chartered plane and secretly "rendered" to a basement prison in a country where torturers are experienced and free to do their worst.
As far as we know, Turney and her comrades are not being "worked hard", the euphemism coined by one senior British army officer for the abuse of prisoners at Camp Bread Basket. And as far as we know all 15 are alive and well, which is more than can be said for Baha Mousa, the hotel receptionist who, in 2003, was unfortunate enough to have been taken into custody by British troops in Basra. There has of course been a court martial and it exonerated the soldiers of Mousa's murder. So we can only assume that his death - by beating - was self-inflicted; yet another instance of "asymmetrical warfare", the description given by US authorities to the deaths of the Guantánamo detainees who hanged themselves last year.
And while the families of the captured marines and sailors must be in agonies of uncertainty, they have the comfort of knowing that the very highest in the land are doing everything they can to end their "unjustified detention". They can count themselves especially lucky, for the very same highest of the land have rather different views on what justifies detention where foreign-born Muslims in Britain are concerned. In the case, for example, of the Belmarsh detainees, suspicion justified arrest; statements extracted under torture from third parties justified accusation; and secret hearings justified imprisonment.
With disregard for the rights of prisoners now entrenched at the very top of government, it comes as no surprise that abuses committed by rank and file soldiers go virtually unremarked. No one in politics or the media dares censure the military, surely today the only institution still immune from any sort of criticism, even when soldiers are brutal and murderous towards captives. Instead of frankly facing up to the wrongs soldiers have perpetrated, officers and ministers speak of difficult work done in testing conditions, deliberate provocations, and propaganda by the enemy.
We all know in our bones that soldiers and civilians in revolt don't mix. Ask any historian. Ask them about what British soldiers did in Kenya, French soldiers did in Algeria, and Americans in Vietnam. While you're at it, ask them what the RAF did in Iraq under British rule in the 1920s (gassed Kurds, in case you've forgotten).
We must all hope that Faye Turney and her comrades are returned to their families safely and soon. Then perhaps we can compare their accounts of their treatment with what Moazzam Begg and the Tipton Three have to say about Guantánamo, what Prisoner B has to say about Belmarsh, and what the men arrested with Baha Mousa can tell us of his screams on the night he died.
Ronan Bennett's latest novel, Zugzwang, is published by Bloomsbury in July
© 2007 The Guardian