x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Report: British army cleared of 'systematic' Iraq torture

However, the inquiry criticises the brutal conduct of individual soldiers and the "numerous failures" of officers to tackle the problem of abuse against Iraqi civilians.

LONDON // An independent inquiry will clear the British army next month of any systematic torture of Iraqis after the 2003 invasion, it was reported yesterday.

The report in The Sunday Telegraph - whose accuracy was later confirmed by government officials - said the inquiry will criticise the brutal conduct of individual soldiers and the "numerous failures" of officers to tackle the problem.

Publication of the report, scheduled for September 8, is expected to lead to calls for a full public inquiry by lawyers representing 40 Iraqis who claim to have been tortured by British forces.

Sir William Gage, a retired Appeal Court judge, chaired the three-year inquiry, which focused on the death of Baha Mousa, 26, a Basra hotel worker, and the abuse of nine other Iraqis arrested with him six months after the invasion.

Mousa, a father of two young boys whose wife had recently died of cancer, was arrested in a raid by members of the Queen's Lancashire Regiment (QLR) on a suspected terror cell operating out of the Ibn al Haitham Hotel, where he worked as a receptionist.

He and several colleagues were taken back to the QLR base in Basra after the soldiers found AK-47s, submachine guns, pistols, fake ID cards and military clothing in the hotel.

At the base, the soldiers subjected the Iraqis to physical abuse and "conditioning" methods banned by the UK government in 1972, including hooding, sleep deprivation and making them stand in painful stress positions, the inquiry was told.

Within 36 hours of being detained, Mousa was dead. An examination found 93 separate injuries on his body.

The government in Britain, then formed by the Labour Party, ordered the inquiry in 2008 and Sir William's investigation became the biggest examination of military conduct in Iraq as it heard evidence from almost 250 witnesses.

A senior, unnamed army officer was quoted by the Telegraph as saying: "The inquiry has found no evidence of systematic abuse because there wasn't any. That is not to say that abuse did not happen, but claims that there was a culture or a conspiracy to torture alleged insurgents has not been proved.

"The death of Baha Mousa remains a stain on the reputation of the British Army. He was a civilian who was beaten to death in British custody and no one has been held to account and that is a great failing."

The newspaper reported that the inquiry will criticise the initial investigation into Mr Mousa's death, will accuse individual soldiers of a dereliction of duty when they closed ranks to try to cover up the abuse, and will say the army's chain of command failed in its supervision of the soldiers.

A defence ministry spokesman in London yesterday described Mr Mousa's death as "shameful and inexcusable".

He said: "More than 100,000 service personnel served in Iraq and the vast majority conducted themselves with extraordinary courage, professionalism and decency in very demanding circumstances.

"Nonetheless we acknowledge that the actions that led to the death of Baha Mousa were shameful and inexcusable. Lessons have been learnt and much has been done since 2003, but we look forward to the inquiry's report and will look carefully at any recommendations they make."

Seven QLR soldiers, including the former commanding officer Col Jorge Mendonca, were put on trial on charges of mistreating prisoners at a court martial in Britain in 2006.

At the end of the hearing, all of them were cleared, apart from Corporal Donald Payne, who became the first member of the British armed forces convicted of a war crime after he pleaded guilty to inhumanely treating civilians.

The judge presiding over the trial, Justice Stuart McKinnon, criticised the soldiers for failing to answer questions properly and accused them of putting up a "wall of silence".

Col Mendonca, who had been described as one of the army's most outstanding officers and had been tipped to reach the very top of the military hierarchy, quit the service after the court martial.

He said after his acquittal: "Every one of my soldiers and officers worked extremely hard under indescribably difficult conditions to make Basra a better place, and I just hope that fact is not forgotten in the aftermath of this trial."

In July 2008, the defence ministry agreed to pay £2.83 million (Dh17m) in compensation to the Mousa family and to the nine other Iraqi men abused by the soldiers.

dsapsted@thenational.ae