Beaten to death in Basra
By Finian Cunningham
-- -- 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
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
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
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
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
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
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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