It was Baha Mousa’s dad I will always remember. On an oppressively scorching day in Basra, Daoud Mousa first spoke of his son’s death, telling me how the boy’s wife had died of cancer just six months earlier, how Baha’s children were now orphans, how – not long after the British Army had arrested Baha Mousa and beaten him to death, for that is what happened – a British officer had come to his home and stared at the floor and offered cash by way of saying sorry.
“What do you think I should do?” Daoud asked me. Get a lawyer, I said. Tell Amnesty and Human Rights Watch. Let me write about it. When I called at the British base at Basra airport, one officer laughed at me. “Call the Ministry of Defence,” he said dismissively. He didn’t care.
I had spent years in Belfast, listening to the same kind of arrogant, vicious, indifferent reaction to the Army’s brutality. It was always the same. Terrorists. Terrorist propaganda. The extraordinary discipline of British squaddies under enormous pressure, etc, etc, etc. Then – when the game was up and the evidence too fresh and too overwhelming – I used to get what we would today call the “Abu Ghraib response”. A “few bad apples”. Always a “few bad apples”.
Hundreds of thousands of fine British soldiers behaving with exemplary courage and courtesy, in danger of their lives 24 hours a day – you will read this stuff in the usual newspapers today. They were the real victims of these “bad apples” – the actual victims, the 14 Catholic dead on Bloody Sunday in Derry, Baha Mousa in Basra, were the sub-victims who had somehow got in the way. They could be lied about.
Where did all these “bad apples” come from, I used to ask, along with their complacent, complicit officers? I recall the day the Gloucestershire Regiment ran amok in Belfast, smashing all the downstairs windows of a Catholic street just before they returned to Britain. Untrue, of course. Terrorist propaganda. Then a “few bad apples”. Was I on the side of the IRA? And so it went on. And on.
It wasn’t the brutality that was “systematic”. It was the lying that was systematic. In Northern Ireland, among the Americans after Abu Ghraib and Bagram and the black prisons and the renditions. Baha Mousa received 93 wounds. There was an inquiry, I was imperiously told. It was all sub judice.
Even the moment of Baha Mousa’s arrest has never been truly investigated. Colonel Daoud Mousa – for Baha’s father was a senior police officer, permitted by the British to carry a pistol and wear his blue uniform, hardly the father of a terrorist – actually saw his boy after his arrest, lying under orders on the floor of the hotel in which he worked.
The soldiers had found some weapons – perfectly normal in Basra where almost every household contained guns – but what the British didn’t want to talk about just then was that Baha had told his father that several British troops had opened the hotel safe and stuffed currency into their pockets.
That, Colonel Mousa believed, was the real reason he was killed. Baha had been a snitch. He was a witness to theft. The British officer in the hotel had told the colonel that his son would be returned to him safe and sound. Bullshit, of course. The 1st Battalion, The Queen’s Lancashire Regiment saw to that.
When I went to see one of Baha’s friends – newly released by his British killers – he appeared to have lost a kidney to the treatment he had received. He wept. His face was blue with bruises. Yes, this was my country which had done this. No comment. Call the Ministry of Defence.
Baha Mousa’s nose was broken. There was blood above the corpse’s mouth. The skin had been ripped off his wrists. According to his friend, Baha had been crying and pleading for his life from beneath his hood. “They gave us the names of footballers and cursed us with them as they attacked us,” he said.
The Brits did the same in Northern Ireland, I remember. Catholics would often tell me they were given the names of footballers before the beatings began.
A bit systematic, perhaps? “They were kick-boxing us in the chest and between the legs and in the back…” Baha’s friend said. “He kept asking them to take the bag off and said he was suffocating. But they laughed at him and kicked him more.”
And always there were screwball parallels from officers. We treat the Catholics a lot better than the French Paras treated the Algerians, an officer told me once near Divis Flats. We’re not as bad as Saddam. Nor Hitler, I’m glad to say.
My own Dad was a soldier, older than my Mum, fought in the Third Battle of the Somme, in the First World War, in 1918. He was in what was to become The King’s Regiment. Thank God it wasn’t The Queen’s.
The soldiers: Four men who ‘bear a heavy responsibility’
The 1st Battalion Queen’s Lancashire Regiment was handed control of Basra in July 2003. It was involved in tackling counter-insurgency and was praised for restoring order. QLR soldiers were at the centre of the first allegations of abuse against Iraqi soldiers by the Daily Mirror but the photos were withdrawn as fakes.
The inquiry identifies four soldiers who should “bear a heavy responsibility” for the death of Mr Mousa and injuries to nine other civilians.
Corporal Donald Payne was jailed for 12 months and discharged from the Army in 2006 after admitting inhumane treatment of Mr Mousa. Described as a “violent bully”, he conducted the “choir” which involved assaulting each man in turn.
Lt Craig Rodgers is held responsible for the breakdown in discipline including a “free for all” when soldiers took turns in kicking, punching, and slapping the hooded men. He did not face disciplinary action.
Major Michael Peebles was responsible for the welfare of the detainees but did not intervene. He was acquitted by the court martial.
Col Jorge Mendonca, the commanding officer, ought to have known about the violence and banned techniques being used. Charges against him were dropped at the court martial. The inquiry names 19 soldiers as responsible for inflicting violence. Those still serving could face disciplinary action; all could be subject to criminal or civil actions.
Robert Fisk, The Independent