Baha Mousa inquiry: Death cast 'dark shadow' over Army
- 8 September 2011
- From the section UK
Sir William Gage's inquiry made uncomfortable reading for the Army, with its blow-by-blow account of the violent abuse suffered by Baha Mousa and the other Iraqi detainees in the custody of the 1st Battalion the Queen's Royal Lancashire Regiment in 2003.
Today, the head of the British Army, General Sir Peter Wall, said Mr Mousa's death had "cast a dark shadow" over the Army's reputation and soldiers were now in no doubt about the need to treat detainees humanely and respectfully.
Had that been the case in Basra in 2003, Gen Wall said the Iraqi hotel worker would not have died in British custody.
The Army says steps to improve training, communications and Army doctrine have been taken and more are under way to ensure that such an incident can never happen again.
The inquiry has made 73 recommendations, many of which the Army says are already being implemented, ranging from the need to retain the Ministry of Defence's (MoD) current ban on the use of hoods on detainees to improvements to law training for soldiers and better training in prisoner handling.
After an investigation - and the most expensive court martial in British history in which only one of the accused was found guilty - senior officers looked for the reasons behind such a serious breakdown of accepted standards.
Both the Queen's Lancashire Regiment (QLR) and the 1st Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers had faced difficult and arduous tours.
Yet so had many other regiments, who had also lost men - or whose soldiers saw their comrades terribly wounded by roadside bombs - without resorting to the kind of violence inflicted by those who killed Baha Mousa, and then tried to cover up.
Senior military commanders could only conclude that something had gone terribly wrong.
In 2005, the head of the Army at the time, General Sir Mike Jackson, tasked Brigadier Robert Aitken, then director of Army personnel strategy, with conducting a review.
But while the Aitken Report, published in 2008, identified important lessons to be learned, it did not manage to fully explain the failings that had led to Baha Mousa's death.
It did, however, conclude that British troops were given "scant" information on how to treat civilian detainees, and needed "a better understanding between right and wrong".
It said there was no evidence of systemic abuse, but recommended changes to rectify serious flaws in the way soldiers were trained to deal with prisoners ahead of their deployment. A new training video was produced, as well as more explicit guidelines.
However, the Aitken Report was condemned as a whitewash by the lawyers acting for the Iraqi civilians, and in May 2008, the government decided the issue would not go away, and announced the Baha Mousa Inquiry.
The then head of the Army General Sir Richard (now Lord) Dannatt welcomed it, saying: "As soldiers, we know only too well that the conduct of military operations is both difficult and dangerous, but we also know it is our duty to behave in accordance with both the law and the Army's core values.
"Those core values include courage, integrity and discipline as well as loyalty, selfless commitment and, crucially in this case, respect for others. The Army's operational effectiveness and reputation depend on this."
He concluded that what happened to Mr Mousa was "...not a misjudgement in the heat of battle, or in the heat of the moment. There can be no excuse."
Evidence emerged at one of the inquiry's hearings that the MoD had been concerned a year before the Iraq invasion about the lack of trained interrogators.
An internal memo had warned: "The lack of prisoner handling and tactical questioning-trained personnel within deployed force elements risks the loss of potentially accurate, timely and life-saving information/intelligence during our fighting operations ... The less well-trained our troops are, the greater the chance that they may mishandle prisoners."
The inquiry was told that at the time of Baha Mousa's death, there were no QLR soldiers in Iraq qualified in tactical questioning - the interrogation of detainees to extract information as quickly as possible.
One key issue the inquiry followed up was who in the chain of command had authorised the use of the techniques of hooding, stress positions, sleep deprivation, white noise and food and drink deprivation, which had been specifically banned under Edward Heath's government in 1972.
Few in the military by 2003 knew of or remembered the ban, and it was not included in MoD guidelines on the treatment of prisoners issued in 2001.
The revised guidelines, issued five years later, made clear these methods were prohibited. They "must never be used as an aid to tactical questioning or interrogation", the document said.
The Army itself says that while its policy has not changed significantly since 2003, greater emphasis has been placed on the inculcation of its core values and standards, training, education, and the oversight of detention policy and training.
Soldiers are encouraged to report any signs of abuse up through their chain of command, or - if that is believed to be involved in any wrong-doing - to go via the padre or directly up to a higher level.
SERE instructors (survival, evasion, resistance, extraction) are now separate from tactical questioners, while tactical questioners and tactical interrogators have also been separated as specific skills, with a requirement for those qualified as tactical questioners to be re-licenced every two years.
The MoD is considering the use of interactive or gaming technology to communicate that training to a generation of younger soldiers reared on such technology.
And all those being sent on operations must know the five prohibited techniques which are never to be used on prisoners:
- Stress positions: Forcing captured or detained persons to remain in a physically uncomfortable position unnecessarily
- Hooding: Putting a bag or sandbag over a captured or detained persons head
- Subjection to noise
- Deprivation of sleep
- Deprivation of food and drink
Above all, though, say senior officers, preventing any repeat of the Baha Mousa tragedy relies on leadership, from the very top of the British Army to the lowest-ranking soldier.
"A man came into our custody and our care alive, and he left dead," said one Army source. "We can never forget that."