Baha Mousa: a tragic case from a painful decade

The public inquiry into the army’s responsibility for the death of the 26-year-old Iraqi hotel receptionist Baha Mousa and the mistreatment of other Iraqi detainees in Basra in 2003 has described a “corporate failure” in the British army. The “serious gratuitous violence” of a group of soldiers was not stopped by more senior soldiers, and had itself grown out of an institutional problem in the army.

I’ve mostly read about the Baha Mousa inquiry’s massive report, but I’ve dipped into a few of its 1,336 pages and it doesn’t take long to find passages like this, testimony from Private Gareth Aspinall:

I remember the padre coming, because I thought at the time when he visited it was – it was quite clear that he [Baha Mousa] was probably maybe worse for wear, as in, you know, slouching on the floor and, you know, I don’t know, not great….I can’t remember if they [BM and other detainees] were moaning and groaning, but it probably would have been apparent that they weren’t in great condition….And I just remember it because I thought, well, even the padre has visited and even he – is he going to say anything, and he didn’t mention anything. So when people like that have come in of high authority you start to think, well, if I was going to report it who – is anyone bothered? I don’t know. So that’s why I was worried about reporting it.

People of “high authority” did nothing to stop the soldiers putting hooded, hand-cuffed detainees in a room for a day and half, beating them whenever they slumped down. In fact, according to testimony from unranked soldiers, more senior soldiers, NCOs, ordered them to ensure the detainees maintained stress positions (hooded and handcuffed, sitting straight-backed and cross-legged on the ground). One soldier has described how the room “absolutely” stank of sweat and urine.

The horrific results of the beatings suffered by Baha Mousa are well known – his 93 separate injuries, the battered disfigured body. His father, Daoud Mousa, a senior Iraqi police officer, has described what he saw when he went a morgue to collect his son’s body: "When they took the cover off his body I could see his nose was broken badly. There was blood coming from his nose and his mouth. The skin on his wrists had been torn off. The skin on his forehead was torn away and beneath his eyes there was no skin either. On the left side of his chest there were clear blue bruises and also on his abdomen. On his legs I saw bruising from kicking. I couldn't stand it."

In a sense, this horrible episode in Basra was the British army’s Abu Ghraib. In fact, according to lawyers representing the men subjected to this abuse, there are dozens and dozens of other cases yet to be properly examined. Indeed only one man, a particularly sadistic corporal who assaulted Baha Mousa, has so far been found guilty of an offence (Amnesty believes others must be brought to justice).

Apart from the brutality itself (the “choir” of groans from the beaten prisoners, the laughing soldiers, the beatings with metal bars, the trophy photos), the most disturning aspect is that an institution like the MoD could have “largely forgotten” (in the report’s words) its own rules on the treatment of prisoners.

Why was this? I reckon it’s got a lot to do with the “war on terror”. This period – 2003 – was when the rhetoric was at its most reckless and the military and spy agencies (US and UK) most out of control. In the week when we’ve heard about British intelligence arranging the rendition in 2004 of a man to Libya (to face likely torture and imprisonment without trial) and listened to the former head of MI5 saying that torture is wrong but nevertheless claiming that it “can contribute to saving lives”, there are still grounds to worry that a lot more is yet to come out (it’s why we need a more powerful detainee inquiry, not the de-fanged one we’re getting).

All of this makes for a sombering backdrop in the week that ends with the 10th anniversary of 9/11 on Sunday. I think all of those people who so tragically lost their lives that day deserve better than what we’ve seen in the last decade. Instead of the torture and the undermining of international law (not least at Guantánamo), we should have had proper, steely-determined law-enforcement.

Ten years is a long time to be making these mistakes. I seriously hope the next decade will see greater international respect for human rights and a recognition that you don’t make people safer through torture and state-level lawlessness.   

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