Nineteen soldiers could face criminal charges for their role in the death of an innocent Iraqi man after a public inquiry found he was the victim of “appalling and cowardly” violence while in British custody.
Baha Mousa with his son.
Military and civilian prosecuting authorities are examining the findings of a three-year inquiry into the death of Baha Mousa, a hotel receptionist who died after a 36-hour ordeal at the hands of British soldiers in Basra in September 2003. Nine other civilians were bound, hooded and subjected to “serious, gratuitous violence”.
The inquiry, chaired by Sir William Gage, a retired judge, found the Ministry of Defence guilty of a “corporate failure” to uphold basic standards by allowing rules to go “largely forgotten”. While clearing the soldiers’ unit, the 1st Bn Queen’s Lancashire Regiment, of having an “entrenched culture of violence”, he said it was clear the abuses were not a one-off.
Dr Liam Fox, the Defence Secretary, said the events described in the report were “deplorable, shocking and shameful” and instructed the head of the Army to take action against any serving personnel who were involved.
Three serving soldiers, including an officer, have already been suspended from duty as a result of the inquiry.
Dr Fox told the Commons: “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. There is no place in our Armed Forces for the mistreatment of detainees and there is no place for a perverted sense of loyalty that turns a blind eye to wrongdoing or erects a wall of silence to cover it up.”
The 1,400-page report details how the victims spent a day and a half with bags tied around their heads while being forced to stand in “stress positions” – practices banned under both domestic law and the Geneva Conventions.
Last night the Chief of the General Staff, Sir Peter Wall, said the incident “cast a dark shadow” over the reputation of the Army while David Cameron condemned the “truly shocking and appalling” abuse which he said should never be repeated.
The £13 million inquiry singled out 19 soldiers whom it concluded were directly involved in the abuse, including some who have already faced unsuccessful prosecution at court martial.
Lawyers for families of the victims said there was potentially the evidence to bring new prosecutions against all of them in the civilian courts. It emerged last night that three soldiers serving in the Army, including an officer, had been suspended from duties and MoD sources believed another 11 former servicemen could also face charges.
The suspended officer, Maj Mike Peebles of the Intelligence Corps, would face a second court martial if Army prosecutors believed there was sufficient new evidence. He was originally acquitted of negligently performing a duty during a court martial in 2007 when he was among six soldiers to walk free after the effective collapse of a £20 million case.
Only Cpl Donald Payne, named as committing some of the worst abuses, was convicted at the original court martial after pleading guilty to inhumane treatment. He was cleared of manslaughter but jailed for a year. Six others, including the regiment’s former commanding officer, Col Jorge Mendonça, were cleared of charges.
Yesterday both he and Maj Peebles were singled out as bearing “heavy responsibility” for what happened. Several soldiers who were not involved in the original court martial are among those who could now face prosecution.
This could include a large number of men who have left the Forces.
Dr Fox said efforts were already under way to determine whether “more can be done to bring those responsible to justice”. He told MPs that the MoD’s Iraq Historic Allegations Team had found evidence of “some concern” and cases would be passed to the Director of Service Prosecutions where there was “sufficient” evidence. Any eventual cases would be likely to be brought by the Crown Prosecution Service as most of the men were now civilians. Sapna Malik, a lawyer representing the Iraqi families, said they “expect” both military and civilian prosecuting authorities to act.
Despite the criticism, Dr Fox rejected a key recommendation in the report for a blanket ban on so-called “harsh” questioning methods, warning that lives could be put at risk unless the Forces could deploy all “necessary” techniques.