Beaten to death in Basra

By Finian Cunningham

03/03/06 "
ICH" -- -- Baha Moussa was working as a night-shift receptionist at the Ibn al Haithan Hotel in Basra when British troops raided the premises. The 23-year-old was arrested along with other members of the hotel staff, and taken to a nearby British military base for questioning. Four days later his father identified Baha’s corpse in a morgue. He had been beaten to a pulp.

"When they took the cover off his body I could see his nose was badly broken," said Daoud Moussa, a senior Iraqi police officer. "The skin of his wrists had been torn off. The skin on his forehead was torn away. On the left side of his chest there were clear blue bruises. On his legs I saw bruising from kicking."

Almost three years later, three soldiers belonging to the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment are awaiting trial in Britain over Baha’s death, one of them charged with manslaughter, the other two with "inhumane treatment."

Why there isn’t a straightforward murder trial is a telling question about British sincerity to fully prosecute soldiers accused of torture and other war crimes. What’s even more telling is that this week there was a small report in the British media that the commander of the troops charged over Baha’s killing is to be promoted. Despite also facing trial for negligence, Colonel Mendonca has been selected to attend a top military college aimed at "grooming the next generation of generals," according to The London Times.

The signal that this sends out cannot be understated. It signals that the British authorities are not serious about dealing with allegations of war crimes. As the lawyer acting for Baha Moussa’s family said, the British government is perpetuating a "history of impunity."

Amnesty International says there is a clear "pattern" of killings, torture and ill treatment by British soldiers of detainees in Iraq. Yet only a handful ever result in prosecutions.

Not one British soldier has been convicted of murder or the lesser charge of manslaughter since hostilities officially ended in Iraq, in May 2003. In one high-profile trial which collapsed last November, seven members of the Parachute Regiment were cleared of murdering 18-year-old Nadhem Abdullah whom they had apprehended in a village in south Iraq. The judge dismissed the case on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence to convict any individual soldier, even though traces of the victim’s blood were found on a rifle butt.

One is tempted to conclude that a small sample of cases are cynically taken to trial to give the impression that British authorities are addressing allegations of war crimes but, in effect, do nothing about it. This has the added appeal for the government and army brass of creating the impression that only a tiny element within the forces are involved in misconduct.

As for torture and ill treatment of detainees, again there is something of a cynical game being played by the British (and US) authorities. Firstly, it should be noted that over a two-year period it is conservatively estimated that 30-40,000 individuals were detained in US/UK prisons in Iraq since the official end of "the war." Given that the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq was in itself illegal, according to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, the subsequent use of massive, prolonged detention without trial should surely also constitute a serious breach of international law, if not a war crime.

Out of the countless reports and images of gross mistreatment at Abu Ghraib, Camp Breadbasket, Camp Bucca and other "black sites," again only a relative handful result in disciplinary action. From press reports, it is estimated that only four British troops have been court-martialled while in the US two soldiers have been given prison sentences, and some 20 others have been discharged or disciplined.

Given the scale of the abuses, the relatively few prosecutions enable the authorities in Britain and the US to peddle the notion that the violations are being perpetrated by "a few bad apples." Again, this disingenuous response sends out the signal of impunity to members of these forces.

The latest apology for misconduct among British troops came this week from Defence Secretary John Reid, who said that the public and media should be "a little slower to condemn and a lot quicker to understand." He was speaking after video evidence emerged of British troops viciously beating unarmed Iraqi teenagers.

Mr Reid said: "One observer with one videophone standing in a vast and hugely complex theatre of operations can convey an oversimplified and sometimes misleading picture." He said the good reputation of the vast majority of British troops was tarnished by the "offences of a few."

A spokesman for Prime Minister Tony Blair added: "It should not become the only thing that people think our troops are up to in Iraq. Our troops are helping Iraqis to achieve democracy."

It is notable that this self-congratulatory delusion or deception about the real behaviour of British forces is shared by senior British politicians across all the parties. The benign self-image is also reflected in all the major news media.

On the latest scandal of troops thrashing youths, the BBC quickly reminded viewers that the army is performing "an essentially peacekeeping role." The Times described the incident as "a shot in the foot." Even the liberal-left Guardian lamented "rogue breaches," while The Independent said it was "a propaganda gift to our enemies."

This uniform assumption that killings, torture or misconduct are somehow aberrations in the noble cause of British troops in Iraq is an indication of how deep-seated the culture of impunity is in British society. This is what historian Mark Curtis means when he described Britain as "a single-ideology totalitarian state."

In his book Web of Deceit, Curtis points out that torture of civilian populations is a deliberate policy of control by British colonialism and imperialism, whether under the direction of Labour or Conservative governments.

An official British investigation in 1971 observed that the British army had engaged in the torture of detainees, using methods including "wall-standing, hooding, noise, bread and water diet and deprivation of sleep."

These techniques in torture, the investigation admitted, were "important" to counterinsurgency operations in Palestine, Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus, British Cameroons, Brunei, British Guiana (now Guyana), Aden, Borneo/Malaysia, the Persian Gulf and in Northern Ireland.

This puts what is really happening in Iraq into a more comprehensible historical perspective, a perspective of unrelenting British violence and crimes against humanity. I think it’s a perspective that would be more readily recognised by Baha Moussa’s family and thousands of other families in Iraq, rather than Mr Blair’s assurances about helping to "achieve democracy."

The writer is a newspaper journalist in Dublin - Email:

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