Delayed Justice for Iraqi Civilian Who Died in British Custody

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An undated family photograph shows Baha Mousa, 26, with his wife and two children. (Photo: Reuters)

Baha Mousa, a 26-year old hotel worker in Basra, Iraq, died eight years ago following an “appalling episode of serious gratuitous violence” carried out by British soldiers in “a very serious breach of discipline,” a public inquiry has concluded.

In a damning 1,400-page report published this morning, retired judge William Gage also condemned the “corporate failure” at the U.K.’s Ministry of Defence. He believes the lack of any official doctrine on interrogation led to the use of banned methods—including covering detainees with hoods and forcing them to assume painful stress positions—and that these techniques contributed to Mousa’s death.

Members of the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment (1QLR) were deployed to Basra in June 2003, two months after the U.S. invaded Iraq. In September the regiment launched a campaign to hunt down suspected insurgents in the city after a roadside bomb killed 1QLR officer Captain David Jones, and after gunmen mowed down three members of the Royal Military Police (RMP). On Sep. 14, 2003, while raiding the Ibn Al Haitham Hotel where Mousa worked as a receptionist, officers found fake identity cards, military clothing and weapons. They arrested Mousa and nine other Iraqi men, incorrectly linking them to the deaths of Jones and the RMP.

Mousa died 36 hours after being taken into custody. A post-mortem revealed that he had sustained 93 separate injuries, including fractured ribs and a broken nose. As Gage notes in his report, the detainees were kept handcuffed, hooded with up to three sandbags and forced to lean against walls in stress positions in extreme heat “and conditions of some squalor” for the bulk of the time leading to Mousa’s death. Corporal Donald Payne, who pleaded guilty to inhumane treatment in 2006, instigated a painful method of assault known as the “choir” in which he would punch or kick the men in sequence, causing each of them to groan or give off other audible forms of distress.  Gage describes Payne as a “violent bully” who encouraged junior soldiers to inflict “a dreadful catalogue of unjustified and brutal violence” on the detainees.

But Gage spread blame across a total of 19 members of the U.K. armed forces, including three non-commission officers, who carried out assaults. The inquiry, which has lasted three years and involved testimony from nearly 400 people, found that Lieutenant Colonel Jorge Mendonca, the battalion’s former commanding officer, bore “heavy responsibility” for Mousa’s death for failing to prevent the use of “conditioning” methods like hooding. Other commanding officers learned of the abuse but remained silent, along with medics who knew that Mousa had sustained injuries. The report even criticizes the regiment’s priest Father Peter Madden, who visited the detention facility on the day Mousa died and who likely saw the shocking conditions. “He ought to have intervened immediately or reported it up the chain of command,” Gage writes. “But in fact it seems he did not have the courage to do either.”

Liam Fox, the Defence Secretary, reacted to the report this afternoon by describing the events leading up to Mousa’s death as “deplorable, shocking and shameful.” He warned against letting “the unspeakable actions of a very few to damage the reputation of the whole.”

But the inquiry, along with Mousa’s family, won’t accept the Ministry scapegoating a few of its men. That would dodge the broader questions of policy that may have encouraged, or at least avoided addressing, brutal interrogation methods. At a press conference this morning, Phil Shriner, the lawyer representing Mousa’s family, re-iterated Gage’s finding that Mousa’s death was not “simply the act of a few rogue soldiers. His report provides a detailed analysis of how hooding, stress positions, sleep deprivation, noise disorientation and minimal food and water ultimately contributed to Baha dying in British custody.”

Those five techniques were banned in the U.K. in 1972 following an investigation into the treatment of prisoners in Northern Ireland. But, Gage concludes, collective knowledge of that ban had been largely lost by the time soldiers detained Mousa, and “there was no proper [Ministry of Defence] doctrine on interrogation of prisoners of war that was generally available.” Had those techniques—which Gage describes as “wholly unacceptable in any circumstances”—been the subject of policy and training, it would have been inconceivable that British officers would have thought it right to use them.

Fox accepted Gage’s reccomendations with one strong reservation. He believes it is “vital that we retain the techniques necessary to secure swiftly in appropriate circumstances the intelligence that can save lives.” But as the Mousa case tragically illustrates, shifting notions of propriety means some lives may be lost, too.

William Lee Adams is a staff writer at the London bureau of TIME. Find him on Twitter at @willyleeadams or on Facebook. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.