The evidence of British abuse and killing of Iraqi civilians is part of an iceberg of disgrace which demands a public inquiry
Monday April 23, 2007
Images of the battered, bloodied, bruised face of Baha Mousa, tortured to death while in detention with British troops under the Iraq occupation, should have shocked the nation when they appeared last week. Instead, most media outlets chose to ignore them. By comparison, when Canadian troops meted out similar treatment to a prisoner in Somalia in the 1990s, the result was a five-year public inquiry and spring-clean of the military justice system. What is going on?
To answer that question is to dig into what was described as a cover-up by the judge advocate at the conclusion of the court martial into the incident. What follows arises from publicly available material, most of it in the House of Lords case, which finishes tomorrow, into whether the Human Rights Act applied to protect Mousa and others. There are four clusters of issues we have to face.
First, the incident led to more than just a single death. Photographs and medical evidence show our troops nearly killed another civilian, and badly injured five others. The judge found that a group of soldiers had engaged in systematic torture and humiliation, but none had been charged because of an "obvious closing of ranks". Who were the torturers?
Second, the torture included the use of four techniques banned by the government in 1972: hooding, stressing and sleep and food deprivation. And it was not just one rogue battalion, 1st Queen's Lancashire Regiment (QLR), but others. Further, we are asked to believe that only a single battalion relied on senior brigade legal advice, which said it would not be breaching international humanitarian law to hood and stress civilian detainees. Is this credible?
Third, the facility where Mousa and others were tortured was small. The soldiers' shouting and detainees' screaming were audible to anyone on the site. So, who are those in command who knew, or ought to have known, what was going on in the critical 36 hours before Mousa's death? Even more potentially damning to the chain of command responsibility, who knew, or ought to have known, of the complete breakdown in the system of training troops? There was a failure to train troops to observe the law and also, it seems, to teach them the basic principles to enable them to fulfil their role.
The evidence on the training of tactical questioners is striking. They have an important balance to strike. They need to obtain evidence from detainees that may, for example, save the lives of our troops. And they must do so without using torture or ill-treatment. This is about prisoner handling. The evidence shows the tactical questioners in the Mousa incident had precisely 1.25 hours training on this. Further, those responsible did not ensure that rules of engagement appropriate to an occupation, not a war, were promulgated to reflect the change for 10 weeks. There is a risk that during this period our troops were following the wrong rules.
The final cluster of issues is where it starts to get really ugly. What are we supposed to make of material that shows it was standard to refer to Iraqis as "Ali Babas"? Or of military operations that had similar racist connotations from an earlier era? Or material that indicates a remorseless disregard of Iraqis' human rights, which dehumanised them in the eyes of the troops who were supposed to protect them? When our troops were supposed to be exercising policing functions, we appear to have shot first and asked questions later.
Uncomfortable questions about our complicity in war crimes with the US also lurk beneath the surface. The evidence from prosecution witnesses in the court martial shows that the US was putting pressure on us to adopt its interrogation techniques.
Consider that the facility involved in the Mousa incident was in the middle of an urban area and the abuse occurred in broad daylight. By comparison, our theatre internment facility, Camp Bucca in southern Iraq, was in the middle of nowhere. But the government claims the US ran Camp Bucca. The evidence in the court martial is clear. We had two compounds for UK detainees, they had six. We had jurisdiction over UK detainees who were subject to questioning by our tactical questioners. So why the blatant denial of responsibility where it is obvious the UK did have jurisdiction? The MoD admitted in 2004 that six other Iraqis had died while in detention with British troops, and we know all British detainees were taken to Camp Bucca until Christmas 2003. We also know that US forces killed Iraqis during "riots" at the facility and that three US soldiers were discharged in 2004 after being found guilty of abusing prisoners. If Mousa died in our custody where he did, what was happening in the British section of Camp Bucca?
Most of this iceberg of disgrace will remain hidden unless there is an independent and public inquiry. What is our government's response to Mousa's death and its implications? Sadly, it knows no shame. Despite the shocking facts and images, it argues in the Lords that the Human Rights Act does not apply outside the territory of the UK. If it succeeds in this argument, we can all give up hope of there being any proper domestic accountability for any human rights abuses by UK personnel outside the country. I can almost hear the howl of anguish from Baha Mousa's grave.
· Phil Shiner is a solicitor and acts for the family of Baha Mousa and in 40 other cases of torture, beatings and killings by UK forces in Iraq