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Baha Mousa: not due to just a few rotten apples

The killing of Baha Mousa, who died from 93 wounds inflicted by British soldiers at Basra in September 2003, cannot be dismissed as the obscene work of a few violent bullies who got out of control in this shameful incident. Nor is it reassuring to hear the MOD intone that all necessary reforms have now been put in place so that behaviour like this will never happen again. How many times have we heard that solemnly rolled out, as we did again yesterday, and given the Government Department the benefit of the doubt – until something similar does indeed happen again? Anyway that begs the question as to how such a barbaric murder of an innocent civilian in custody could ever have happened in the first place if proper safeguards over interrogation procedures were in place. But this was not an isolated incident.

Other cases where judgements are now awaited shortly in the courts concern over 150 other Iraqis and involve over a dozen other UK detention units and several other battle groups than the 1st Battalion Queen’s Lancashire Regiment during a period of over 5 years till the end of 2008. Such practices include what Phil Shiner, the solicitor representing Mousa’s family, calls “unbelievably debased sexual behaviour, mock executions, vicious threats of rape of detaqinees’ female relatives, and systematic use of hooding, sleep deprivation, temperature manipulation and solitary confinement for weeks”.

The innocuously named Joint Forward Interrogation Team which used these tactics was, astonishingly, outside the military chain of command so that Iraqi prisoners held incommunicado in a closed compound were at the unrelenting mercilessness of violent and brutal captors. The most significant admission made yesterday in the Commons by the Defence Secretary Liam Fox, referring to the ‘conditioning’ of suspects in Northern Ireland banned in 1972, was that “there was a ‘systemic failure’ that allowed knowledge of the prohibition on abusive techniques made by the Heath Government to be lost over the years”. That puts in context the bland and complacent MOD statement about having learnt all the necessary lessons to prevent any recurrence.

The truth is, the MOD never does do remorse. Rather its response is always to hide documents that implicate, spin its way out of trouble with half-truths, and pursue damage limitation rather than honesty so as to mislead the courts and the public at large. And even the latest update of the regulations for the interrogation of prisoners, the July 2010 HMG Consolidated Guidance, still permits cruel and dangerous practices in custody if they can be justified for ‘security purposes’ – a very worrisome loophole.

So far only one soldier implicated has been sent to prison, and only for 1 year which is a wholly inadequate penalty. This was not the misbahaviour of a few ‘rogue soldiers’. Responsibility for allowing such utterly unacceptable violence and brutality to happen goes right up the MOD hierarchy, and what is now needed is a full-scale inquiry into the whole matter, not just single incidents, of UK detention policy in Iraq.

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