U.K. Military Abuse Report Holds Soldiers Responsible In Mistreatment Of Iraqis
LONDON — The brutal death of an Iraqi man held by British soldiers months after the U.S.-led invasion of the country was an "appalling episode of serious gratuitous violence" and partly a result of the U.K.'s failure to properly train troops on interrogation techniques, a report said Thursday.
The inquiry into 26-year-old Baha Mousa's killing underscores a sordid episode in British military history, one that gave the U.K. its first convicted war criminal. But the 1,400 page report stops short of finding systematic, widespread abuses, and officials say many issues raised already have been dealt with.
Mousa was working at a hotel in the southern Iraqi city of Basra that was raided by soldiers looking for weapons in September 2003. It was a particularly sensitive time in Iraq, as ousted dictator Saddam Hussein and many of his loyalists were still at large.
The Iraqi was taken to a British base where he sustained 93 injuries, including fractured ribs and a broken nose. An autopsy said he died of asphyxia, caused by a stress position that soldiers forced him to maintain.
Britain's defense ministry later apologized for the mistreatment of Mousa and nine other Iraqis and paid a $4.8 million (3 million pound) settlement. Six soldiers were cleared of wrongdoing at a court martial in 2007. A seventh pleaded guilty to inhumanely treating Iraqi civilians and served a year in jail.
The inquiry was requested by Mousa's family and also covered the general subject of British military abuses of Iraqi prisoners.
In his findings, the chairman, retired senior judge William Gage, condemned what he characterized as a culture where soldiers failed to report abuses, and called the use of certain interrogation techniques, such as hooding prisoners, unacceptable.
He said British soldiers and officers bore much responsibility for what happened, though his report notes that it "did not amount to an entrenched culture of violence."
Still, the report also criticizes a "corporate failure" at the Ministry of Defense in allowing interrogation techniques that had been banned by the U.K. in 1972 – such as hooding and forcing prisoners to stand in uncomfortable positions – to be used by the soldiers in Iraq.
Gage faulted the ministry for essentially losing track of its doctrine on the techniques and failing to train soldiers on what tactics were banned.
Within the report's 1,400 pages were 73 recommendations for the Ministry of Defense to consider – including for units to designate a "detention officer" to ensure the welfare of prisoners.
Defense Secretary Liam Fox called the report a "painful and difficult read," saying that in addition to "shocking displays of brutality" the incident highlighted serious failings in command and discipline.
"Baha Mousa was not a casualty of war. His death occurred as a detainee in British custody. It was avoidable and preventable and there can be no excuses," Fox told lawmakers.
Fox said the ministry and Army have implemented fundamental changes to prisoner policy since Mousa's death. He added that he accepted "in principle" the report's recommendations, but that he has reservations about a blanket ban on certain verbal and non-physical techniques during tactical questions.
"It is vital that we retain the techniques necessary to secure swiftly in appropriate circumstances the intelligence that can save lives," he said.
The inquiry drew on testimony from Cpl. Donald Payne, whose guilty plea made him Britain's first convicted war criminal. He said some fellow soldiers frequently beat Iraqi detainees and that he downplayed some abuses allegedly committed by his unit for fear it would harm his regiment's reputation.
Gage described Payne as a "violent bully" who inflicted a "dreadful catalog of unjustified and brutal violence" on Mousa and the other detainees while encouraging other, more junior soldiers to do the same.
Gage said he accepted that the battalion's commanding officer was not aware of beatings carried out by his men in a detention center, but said he "ought to have known what was going on."
The inquiry got underway in July 2009 and cost an estimated 13 million pounds ($20.8 million).
Cassandra Vinograd can be reached at http://twitter.com/CassVinograd