Food for Thoughts
Crime and (No) Punishment
September 2003: Baha Mousa was a 26-year-old hotel receptionist living and working in Basra. He was the father of two small children, and a widower, whose young wife had died of a brain tumour a few months previously. By all accounts, Baha was a family man, who was friendly and well-liked. But that didn't save him from a brutal death in British military custody, in the murkiest of circumstances.
Baha's father, Daoud Mousa al-Maliki, described how he had gone to pick up his son from his workplace on the morning of 14th September 2003. He arrived to find that a British military unit had surrounded the hotel, and through one of the windows, he saw a few British soldiers taking money from the hotel safe. A policeman himself, Daoud al-Maliki decided to alert the British officer in charge to the soldiers' actions. Upon entering the building, he was alarmed to find his son and six other hotel employees lying on the floor of the lobby with their hands on their heads. After the British officer had indicated his gratitude at being informed about the looting, Daoud requested him to release his son. After Baha had been identified by his father, the officer assured Daoud that his son would be released in a couple of hours.
As it happened, things turned out rather differently. Baha Mousa died in the custody of the British army on 15th September 2003. According to the post-mortem examination, he had suffered 93 separate injuries. In Daoud's own words, when he was taken to the mortuary, he saw that Baha's body “was literally covered in blood and bruises”. The doctor informed Daoud that the cause of death was suffocation, but his request for a copy of the post-mortem report was denied. Furthermore, Daoud states that the army officer present requested his signature on the death certificate. But upon inspection, an interpreter revealed that the cause of death cited on the death certificate was heart failure. Not surprisingly, an appalled Daoud refused to sign the death certificate of his son.
Baha's bereaved family was offered an interim compensation offer of $3000 on the basis that it was a partial settlement. His father accepted this, primarily as evidence to show that by agreeing to pay compensation, the British army was acknowledging some form of responsibility for the young man's death. Shockingly enough, according to Daoud, this was followed by a subsequent offer of $5000 with no admission of responsibility! The amount was later increased to $8000, but Daoud al-Maliki refused that too. And who can blame him?
Recent witness statements taken in Damascus from Iraqis detained at the same time as Baha Mousa appear to provide strong support for Daoud's contention that his son died as a result of torture at the hands of British army personnel. One witness, Mohand Abdulah (then a 17-year-old student) had known Baha for two years, and recognised his voice as he begged for the beating to stop so that he could have an opportunity to breathe. According to Mr. Abdulah, however, the beating continued, as did the screams that he heard. Another witness Mohammed al-Waz, who was hooded at the time, said that he heard a voice begging for mercy, and when the hood was removed the following morning, he saw what appeared to be a dead man lying on a stretcher. Upon making inquiries subsequently, Mr. al-Waz remains convinced that the dead man was Baha Mousa.
Yet despite an interim payment of compensation by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to his family, a three-year investigation and a six-month court martial of 7 soldiers at a total cost of 20 million pounds, no one has ever been found responsible for Baha Mousa's death. Only one soldier, who pleaded guilty to inhumane treatment of detainees, was convicted of a war crime. But Corporal Donald Payne received a laughably light sentence; he was jailed for a year and dismissed from the army. Even more shockingly, the cases against the other six soldiers were dropped.
According to the presiding judge, Mr. Justice McKinnon, while Baha Mousa's injuries were the result of “numerous assaults over 36 hours by unidentified persons”, there had been an effective cover-up. “None of those soldiers has been charged with any offence, simply because there is no evidence against them as a result of a more or less obvious closing of ranks.” (UK Independent)
The British army's role in Iraq war has been contoversial.
That stonewalling looks set to continue. The Ministry of Defence opposes a public inquiry into the treatment of detainees. It is hard not to wonder what they are afraid the findings of such a public inquiry might be. And the key word here is indeed “public”! After all, the MoD has graciously stated that it is prepared to hold an internal board of inquiry into Baha Mousa's death (perhaps in the serene knowledge that within the system the closing of ranks will remain watertight…?)
It would seem that there is quite a lot to investigate. While these recent witness statements shed a new light on this particular case, taken together, according to the UK Independent, they also suggest “a pattern of abuse by British forces in southern Iraq during the period following the defeat of Saddam Hussain's forces.” While Baha Mousa is thus far the only Iraqi to die in British custody, other witnesses allege a range of abuses from the routine practice of hooding detainees to sleep deprivation and physical abuse. Some witness statements reflect particularly disturbing allegations of torture and degradation including being forced to drink urine.
According to the veteran journalist Robert Fisk, there is an old rule of thumb that should be applied to armies in the field, where for any incident of abuse that is uncovered, there are likely to be a hundred others that will never be revealed. Fisk questions how the Americans who tortured prisoners at Abu Ghraib (apparently with official sanction) could have failed to realise that they were breaking the rules of ordinary humanity! While one cannot deny the fact that frontline soldiers are exposed to real horrors and dehumanising experiences, it is hard to disregard his point that the soldiers in Basra were beating defenceless prisoners in the comfort of their barracks at the time when these alleged abuses took place.
Not everyone in the British army remains untroubled by these paradoxes. General Sir Richard Dannatt, the Head of the British army, has already stated that educating soldiers at the ground level is a “key challenge” facing commanders. In views made public after the acquittal of the soldiers accused in the Baha Mousa case, General Dannatt stressed the importance of British forces retaining “the moral high ground… when a political decision is reached to send a political force on a discretionary intervention”, stating that the military hierarchy must train young people to understand and apply core values of “discipline, integrity… and respect for others” to their conduct in the field. He also stated that any lapses in behaviour must be confronted with thorough inquiries and “timely disposal” of such cases through the judicial system.
Nor is General Dannatt alone in holding these very sensible views. Colonel H R McMaster, of the US Third Armored Cavalry Regiment told the soldiers in his command, “Every time you treat an Iraqi disrespectfully, you are working for the enemy.” If only every commanding officer in the coalition forces and their political leaders had been so unambiguous in their instructions, the terrible incidents at Abu Ghraib and the continuing allegations of misconduct (and worse) against US and British soldiers might have been, if not avoided, then at least minimised.
Yet, on the contrary, some military personnel as well as their political leadership, have left much to be desired in their stance on issues such as the humane and appropriate treatment of detainees. The events at Abu Ghraib, and the subsequent failure to address those events in a satisfactory fashion, have led to widespread unpopularity for the US in many parts of the world. The same may not yet be true of the British forces, but as allegations continue to emerge, there is undoubtedly a danger that the image of the British army will be tarnished beyond recognition.
Baha Mousa with his family. Now his children have lost both parents.
And the general attitude of the British authorities, from the Prime Minister down, has in the view of many been unacceptably lacklustre. As observers have pointed out, while politicians cannot interfere in legal processes they can insist that serious breaches of discipline such as the one which occurred in Basra in September 2003 be thoroughly and independently investigated. It is therefore to the credit of Adam Price, the British MP whose parliamentary questions did so much to bring these abuses into the limelight, that he doggedly pursued these questions at the highest level of public debate.
And that dogged determination is required to expose cover-ups and complicity of politicians in such incidents, is becoming increasingly clear. In a recent interview, the two-star Army General who led the first military investigation into human rights abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq has made it clear that he believes that President George Bush and the then-Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, were both aware of the atrocities (despite their vociferous denials at the time).
The General stated that he was ordered to limit his inquiry into the conduct of military police at the jail, even as he became convinced that they had been given the green light from higher authorities. “Somebody was giving them guidance but I was legally prevented from further investigation into higher authority.” General Taguba became a victim of his own dedication to finding the truth when he was subsequently forced into early retirement. As for those who were responsible for the atrocities at Abu Ghraib, he adds, “Even today… those civilian and military leaders responsible should be held accountable.”
Tony Blair cheers on the British army during a visit to Iraq.
Whether or not this will happen in the US remains to be seen, despite the principled attempts of men like General Anthony Taguba. But it is now to be hoped that the recent ruling by the Law Lords in the UK, that the Human Rights Act applies to civilians arrested and detained by British forces in Iraq, will help to bring justice for any detainees who have suffered abuse at the hands of British soldiers. As for Baha Mousa's family his elderly father and orphaned children one can only hope that justice that has so long been delayed, will not ultimately be denied…
(R) thedailystar.net 2007