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UK troops guilty of 'gratuitous violence' against civilians in Iraq, inquiry finds

An Iraqi man beaten and killed while in the custody of U.K. troops was the victim of "an appalling episode of serious gratuitous violence," an investigation found Thursday.
Image: This file picture taken on July 20, 2005 shows Hassan (L) sitting with his younger brother Ali as they show off a family photo of them posing with their father Baha Mousa and their mother, at their home in Basra, 500 kms south of Baghdad.
Hassan (left) sits with his younger brother Ali as they show off a family photo of them posing with their father Baha Mousa and their mother, at their home in Basra, in this file picture taken July 20, 2005.Essam Al-sudani / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: news services

The brutal death of an Iraqi man held by British soldiers months after the U.S.-led invasion of the country was an "appalling episode of serious gratuitous violence" and partly a result of the U.K.'s failure to properly train troops on interrogation techniques, a report said Thursday.

The inquiry into 26-year-old Baha Mousa's killing underscores a sordid episode in British military history, one that gave the U.K. its first convicted war criminal. But the 1,400 page report stops short of finding systematic, widespread abuses, and officials say many issues raised already have been dealt with.

Mousa was working at a hotel in the southern Iraqi city of Basra that was raided by soldiers looking for weapons in September 2003. It was a particularly sensitive time in Iraq, as ousted dictator Saddam Hussein and many of his loyalists were still at large.

The Iraqi was taken to a British base where he sustained 93 injuries, including fractured ribs and a broken nose. An autopsy said he died of asphyxia, caused by a stress position that soldiers forced him to maintain.

An autopsy said he died of asphyxia, caused by a stress position that soldiers forced him to maintain.

William Gage, who chaired the inquiry into the military's abuse of Iraqi prisoners and Mousa's death, said British soldiers bore a heavy responsibility for the tragedy.

"Such an incident should not have happened and should never happen again," Gage said.

"They constituted an appalling episode of serious, gratuitous violence on civilians which resulted in the death of one man and injuries to others," Gage added.

Defense Secretary Liam Fox called the report a "painful and difficult read," saying that in addition to "shocking displays of brutality" the incident highlighted serious failings in command and discipline.

"Baha Mousa was not a casualty of war. His death occurred as a detainee in British custody. It was avoidable and preventable and there can be no excuses," Fox told lawmakers.

Fox said the ministry and Army have implemented fundamental changes to prisoner policy since Mousa's death. He added that he accepted "in principle" the report's recommendations, but that he has reservations about a blanket ban on certain verbal and non-physical techniques during tactical questions.

"It is vital that we retain the techniques necessary to secure swiftly in appropriate circumstances the intelligence that can save lives," he said.

The inquiry, set up by the former Labour government, made 73 recommendations, including a ban on hooding prisoners and forcing them to stand in awkward positions. The defense ministry should provide better training and clearer guidelines on handling prisoners, it said.

One British soldier, Corporal Donald Payne, boasted to colleagues of conducting a "choir" by beating Mousa and other prisoners so that they cried out in sequence, the inquiry heard.

Another soldier said that on the morning after their arrest the detainees looked as if they had been in a car crash.

Ministry criticized
Gage called the use of certain interrogation techniques, such as hooding prisoners, unacceptable and condemned a culture where soldiers failed to report abuses.

The report also criticized a "corporate failure" at the Ministry of Defense in allowing interrogation techniques that had been banned by the U.K. in 1972 — such as hooding and forcing prisoners to stand in uncomfortable positions — to be used by soldiers in Iraq.

Gage condemned the ministry for losing track of its own doctrine on the techniques and failing to communicate and train soldiers on what interrogation tactics were banned.

However, the report stopped short of finding systematic and widespread abuses, saying the incidents were a stain on the Army's reputation, but "did not amount to an entrenched culture of violence."

Britain's defense ministry has apologized for the mistreatment of Mousa and nine other Iraqis and paid a $4.8 million settlement.

The mother and son of Baha Mousa (R in the picture), an Iraqi hotel receptionist who was kicked and beaten to death whilst in British Army custody, hold pictures of him at their house in Basra, 420 km (260 miles) southeast of Baghdad September 7, 2011. British soldiers beat to death an Iraqi civilian in an act of \"unjustified and brutal violence\" that left a \"very great stain\" on Britain's armed forces, an inquiry concluded on Thursday. Former judge William Gage, who led the three-year investigation, said senior officers should have done more to prevent the 2003 death of hotel worker Baha Mousa and sustained attacks by British troops on nine other detainees in Iraq. Mousa was a 26-year-old in Basra in September 2003. Picture taken September 7, 2011. REUTERS/Atef Hassan (IRAQ - Tags: CONFLICT MILITARY CRIME LAW)Atef Hassan / X01592

Six soldiers were cleared of wrongdoing at a court martial in 2007. Payne pleaded guilty to inhumanely treating Iraqi civilians and served a year in jail. His guilty plea meant he became Britain's first convicted war criminal.

One of the soldier's prisoners described how a liquid was poured over his head, petrol rubbed under his nose and a lighter held near his face, apparently to make him think he was about to be set alight.

Forced to 'dance like Michael Jackson'Another said detainees were forced to "dance like Michael Jackson".

The inquiry found that the attacks on the men started soon after they arrived at the base and intensified in the evening of their arrest, in what Gage described as a "free for all."

Mousa died late on Monday night after a final violent struggle with his guards in a small, disused toilet.

Gage rejected the soldiers' defense that Mousa had been trying to escape.

Payne told the inquiry that some of his fellow soldiers frequently beat Iraqi detainees and said he had downplayed some of the abuses allegedly committed by his unit for fear it would harm his regiment's reputation.

Gage described Payne as a "violent bully" who inflicted a "dreadful catalog of unjustified and brutal violence" on Mousa and the other detainees while encouraging other, more junior soldiers to do the same.

The inquiry condemned the "lack of moral courage to report abuse" and a loss of discipline within the battalion, saying several officers must have been aware of the abuse.

Gage said he accepted that the battalion's commanding officer was not aware of beatings carried out by his men in a detention center, but said he "ought to have known what was going on."

The public inquiry examined Mousa's death and whether troops used banned techniques during interrogations.

It got underway in July 2009 and cost an estimated $20.8 million. The 1,400 page final report does not rule on civil or criminal liability.