A British inquiry into the death of an Iraqi detainee has sharply criticized the conduct of British soldiers. But the growing number of Iraqis who claim they were mistreated could point to broader systemic abuse.
The inquiry did not find a 'culture of violence' in the army
In the early months after the US-led coalition toppled Saddam Hussein, British forces occupying southern Iraq detained 26-year-old Baha Mousa and nine other men after finding rifles and suspected explosive material at the Basra hotel where he worked as a receptionist.
Mousa died while under British detention, suffering asphyxiation and 93 injuries to his body including fractured ribs and a broken nose. The father of two had been subjected to illegal interrogation techniques banned after Britain's experience combating separatists in Northern Ireland during the 1970s.
Although the most expensive court martial in British history was initiated against seven members of the 1st Battalion of the Queen's Lancashire Regiment, six were acquitted due to a lack of evidence. Ex-Corporal Donald Payne, however, pled guilty to treating civilians inhumanely, going down in history as the British military's first convicted war criminal.
The subsequent public inquiry - aimed at shedding light on the circumstances surrounding Mousa's death - released its final report on Thursday. Although the report sharply criticized the "unjustified and brutal violence" committed by the soldiers as more than just a "one-off" incident, it found that the abuse "did not amount to an entrenched culture of violence" among British forces in Basra.
Yet at least 127 other Iraqis have subsequently alleged that they were abused while in British detention. According to human rights experts such as Clive Baldwin, the allegations are symptomatic of an environment in which British soldiers were expected to act as policemen while their own government denied that basic rule of law principles applied during the occupation.
"They have denied vehemently that human rights law applies to the actions of the army in Iraq or anywhere else outside of the UK and that has real consequences," Baldwin, with Human Rights Watch in London, told Deutsche Welle.
European conventions apply
That all changed, however, when the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France ruled that the European Convention on Human Rights, which the UK ratified, applied to Iraqi civilians during the British military occupation of Basra.
The European Court of Human Rights ruled that European conventions applied in Basra
Iraqi detainees such as Baha Mousa had the right to Article 3 of the convention, which bans torture and inhumane treatment, as well as Article 5 which guarantees the right of detainees to be informed of the charges against them and for their case to be heard before a judge.
"Detention by the British army there was almost completely lawless," Baldwin said. "There were no laws governing it, they picked up who they wanted for as long as they wanted and never took them before a judge."
The allegations also accuse the British military of subjecting Iraqi detainees to the five "conditioning techniques" banned in the 1970s. These techniques include hooding, sleep deprivation, food and water deprivation, stress positions and white noise, also known as sensory bombardment.
Alice Wyss, with Amnesty International in London, told Deutsche Welle that according to British army field manuals, interrogators can make use of a detainee's vulnerable situation to acquire information, but there are strict legal parameters designed to prevent abuse.
"What you cannot do is move any further," Wyss said. "For example you cannot purposefully humiliate someone because they are in a detained situation, you can't hood someone for the purpose of interrogation or instilling fear, you can't exasperate conditions purposefully that would then amount to illegal treatment."
The British government has admitted that these parameters were clearly broken during the detention of Baha Mousa. In July 2008, the Ministry of Defence agreed to pay an indemnity of ₤2.83 million ($4.5 million, 3.2 million euros) to the families of Mousa and the nine other Iraqi men whose rights were violated by British soldiers.
American soldiers also abused Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in 2004
The circumstances under which the abuses occurred, however, are disputed. While representatives of former Iraqi detainees and human rights experts believe there were systemic problems that led to the violations, members of the military have blamed the difficult situation they found themselves in during the occupation of Basra.
"The testimony we have heard from soldiers and what the Baha Mousa report may refer to is a concern about inadequate training, inadequate understanding of the parameters of what they're allowed to do, the stress of the situation which meant that they thought that sort of behaviour spiralled out of control as it was a large group soldiers," Wyss said.
"Those are some of the reasons that have been provided, but in the end what happened to Baha Mousa remains unjustifiable regardless of the conflict situation, regardless of the pressures."
So far, Donald Payne has been the only person convicted, and he served under the relatively low rank of corporal. The judge during the court martial proceedings stated that there had been a closing of ranks among military members that made the collection of evidence difficult.
"Under war crimes it's the basic position that the British are pushing [on] other countries is command responsibility," Baldwin said. "Those in a position of authority who should have known about these crimes and failed to have those responsible prosecuted committed criminal acts themselves and should be prosecuted."
Although the Baha Mousa inquiry has come to a close, other legal and investigative proceedings continue. The case of 19-year-old Hamid al-Sweady, who was allegedly murdered by British soldiers at a checkpoint in 2004, has become the subject of a public inquiry. And attorneys have filed a judicial review for a group of 127 Iraqis who claim they suffered ill-treatment at the hands of the British military.
"In the face of the kind of allegations that have been coming out of Iraq, it seems difficult to believe that this was just a one-off occasion," Wyss said.
The Ministry of Defence has established the Iraq Historical Allegations Team (IHAT) in a bid to investigate the growing number of mistreatment allegations from the period of March 2003 to July 2009. But representatives of the former detainees as well as human rights experts are concerned that IHAT does not have enough independence to conduct rigorous investigations that could potentially point to people at higher levels of responsibility.
The civilian head of IHAT reports to the Provost Marshall of the Army, who is in charge of the Royal Military Police (RMP). And the RMP, according to the legal representation of the alleged victims, could be implicated directly or indirectly in cases of abuse.
"The British are strong defenders of the International Criminal Court and accountability for war crimes," Baldwin said. "They also need to apply that accountability to themselves and that particularly means when war crimes have taken place, those responsible need to be prosecuted up to the highest level."
Author: Spencer Kimball
Editor: Michael Knigge