By Richard Norton-Taylor and Owen Bowcott | Guardian | Sept. 8, 2011
'I had my knee in his back. To control him': theatre tackles the Baha Mousa inquiry. Credit: Alex Healey and Lindsay Poulton Link to this video
British soldiers inflicted "violent and cowardly" assaults on Iraqi civilians, subjecting them to "gratuitous" kickings and beatings, an inquiry into the death of the detainee Baha Mousa has found.
In a devastating indictment of military culture, the retired appeal court judge Sir William Gage ruled that there was widespread ignorance of what was permitted in handling prisoners of war.
The events that led to the death of Mousa were "deplorable, shocking and shameful", the defence secretary, Liam Fox, told the Commons.
Although Gage did not suggest there had been a policy of systematic abuse towards Iraqi suspects, he deplored the absence of any "proper MoD doctrine on interrogation".
The report at the end of the two-year inquiry contains savage criticisms of individual soldiers and officers as well as damning descriptions of poor internal communications, "loss of discipline and a lack of moral courage".
Mousa, 26, a Basra hotel worker, died after spending 36 hours in detention in the custody of soldiers from the 1st Battalion Queen's Lancashire Regiment (1QLR). He was found to have suffered 93 external injuries.
Gage found that even senior commanders were ignorant of a ban imposed in 1972 on the use of five techniques, including hooding, stress positions and sleep deprivation.
The hooding, which was prohibited under the Geneva conventions, was "unjustified and wholly unacceptable".
"For almost the whole of the period up to Baha Mousa's death … the detainees were kept handcuffed, hooded and in stress positions in extreme heat and conditions of some squalor," the report said.
Four soldiers were singled out for severe criticism, including Colonel Jorge Mendonca, the unit's commander, who, he said, "bears a heavy responsibility for these events".
Gage said Mendonca ought to have known what was going on in the detention centre and should have appreciated the dangers of "conditioning". He is acquitted, however, of having any knowledge of the beatings.
Corporal Donald Payne was the only soldier convicted of what the report describes as a "dreadful catalogue of unjustified and brutal violence on the defenceless detainees". Gage calls him a "violent bully".
Lieutenant Craig Rodgers, commander of the unit responsible for guarding the prisoners, is accused of "a very serious breach of duty" for not reporting the treatment meted out. "If he had taken action when he first knew what was occurring, Baha Mousa would almost certainly have survived".
Major Michael Peebles, responsible for monitoring detainees, was accused of "unacceptable" behaviour.
There was also stinging criticism of Father Peter Madden, the unit's Catholic padre, who visited the temporary detention facility (TDF). Judge Gage concluded that he was a "poor witness".
He added: "I find that he did visit the TDF [the day Mousa died] … He must have seen the shocking condition of the detainees and the deteriorating condition of the TDF.
"He ought to have intervened immediately, or reported it up the chain of command but, in fact, it seems he did not have the courage to do either."
Among the humiliations forced upon the detainees, the report said, were toilets being flushed over their heads, beatings with metal bars, verbal abuse, being forced to "dance like Michael Jackson" and having lighter fuel poured over them.
One officer who visited the detention centre told the inquiry that the detainees looked as though they had been "in a car crash".
After the death of Baha Mousa, the surviving detainees were subjected to further assaults and "trophy photographs" were said to have been taken of them being beaten.
The discovery of weapons at the hotel justified the suspects' arrest, Gage commented. "However I regard it as highly unlikely that the detainees or any of them were in fact involved in insurgent or terrorist activity."
One of the principal causes was "an unfounded rumour circulating" through the battalion that the detainees had been responsible for the murder of a popular officer or of members of the Royal Military Police.
The report paints a picture of "corporate" and "systemic failure" of the MoD to provide clear and consistent guidelines about what was permitted in the treatment of prisoners of war.
Techniques were used that had been banned 30 years earlier as "prohibited and unlawful in warfare by reason of the Geneva convention".
At the time of the invasion of Iraq, "there was no proper MoD doctrine on interrogation of prisoners of war that was generally available".
A ban on hooding ordered by a senior officer in Basra after the invasion was never effectively communicated to 1QLR.
But the incidents, Gage said, "did not amount to an entrenched culture of violence in the [British] battlegroup" – a reference to the rest of the British forces in southern Iraq.
Even after Mousa's death an order reminding troops of the ban was not properly disseminated down the chain of command. Prisoner handling was "not given a high priority by the divisional commanders and their chiefs of staff".
The bans on hooding and other techniques were not even included in officers' training at Sandhurst. It added that there were "no standing orders or general instructions in 1QLR as to the medical care for civilian detainees".
Summing up his findings, Gage declared: "The events of 14 to 16 September 2003 were indeed a very great stain on the reputation of the army and no doubt they did at the time greatly damage some of the good work done by 1QLR and other units in Iraq.
"My judgment is that they constituted an appalling episode of serious, gratuitous violence on civilians which resulted in the death of one man and injuries to others. They represent a very serious breach of discipline by a number of members of 1QLR."
Lee Hughes, secretary to the inquiry, said the report was now in the hands of the Crown Prosecution Service which would have to decide whether to take action. "The chairman has no powers to find criminal responsibility. It's for the prosecution authorities to decide," he said.
Witnesses were protected from self-incrimination but evidence from other sources and witnesses about individuals could lead to criminal charges or civil proceedings.
The report of the inquiry, which cost £13m, includes 73 recommendations. They mainly call for clear guidance for all British forces handling prisoners, including an absolute ban on hooding.