Friday, September 09, 2011

The truth about Baha Mousa

In September 2003, British soldiers from the Queen's Lancashire Regiment arrested seven Iraqi men at a hotel in Basra. They were taken to the local British base, hooded, beaten, kicked and tortured. One of them, Baha Mousa, died of his injuries.

When the story came out, the government denied it. Eventually they were forced into an investigation, and then prosecutions. The latter were unsuccessful, thanks to the army's closing ranks to protect the murderers, and only one man was convicted. His penalty for the torture and murder of a prisoner in his care was one year in jail.

Fortunately, it didn't end there. After a public outcry and a successful civil case against the Ministry of Defence for human rights abuses, the government was forced to hold a real inquiry. That inquiry has finally reported back, and for once, it pulls no punches. It finds a lack of institutional knowledge among both ordinary soldiers and even senior officers of what constitutes torture and what conduct is prohibited by UK and international law. It finds an appalling lack of oversight by commanders, which allowed soldiers to brutalise and kill their prisoners. And most importantly, it names names, pointing the finger squarely at both the individual soldiers responsible for Mousa's death, and the officers who looked the other way, excused, and covered up for them.

Those soldiers now look like they will be facing prosecution. And its about bloody time. But what's scary is that this is just one case. There are 150 other cases of abuse of Iraqi civilians currently before the UK courts, including allegations of sexual abuse, mock executions, threats of rape and systematic torture. They too deserve justice.

Meanwhile, this has delivered another lesson in why organisations can't be trusted to oversee themselves, and how they will invariably cover up misbehaviour to protect their own reputations and institutional interests. Only fully independent, outside investigators can deliver justice. Its a lesson everyone should be paying attention to.