Baha Mousa inquiry update

Attorney General blocked review panel to stop prisoner abuse

Abuse of Iraqi prisoners by British troops would have been prevented if the former attorney general Lord Goldsmith had not blocked a British judge being appointed to oversee the handling of detainees. This is what  a public inquiry, which is investigating the death of hotel worker Baha Mousa, heard on 16 March.

The inquiry is looking into how interrogation techniques banned by the Government in 1972 and considered torture and degrading treatment were used again in Iraq.

The army’s former top legal adviser in Iraq said he could not understand why there was strong opposition to the military’s requests for an independent review of how UK troops treated captives. Lieutenant Colonel Nicholas Mercer said he believed the lack of a checking process led to the abuse of prisoners.

Mercer, the chief legal adviser to 1st (UK) Armoured Division on the ground in Iraq after the March 2003 invasion, said his commanders wanted British troops’ treatment of prisoners to be “exemplary” and “meet the highest standards”.

In March and April 2003 they requested the formation of a detainee and internee management unit (DIMU) with a British judge to review how suspects were handled. This was refused by the military’s permanent joint headquarters (PJHQ), apparently on the orders of Lord Goldsmith, then the government’s most senior legal adviser, the inquiry heard.

In a witness statement to the inquiry, Mercer said:

The proposal for a UK judge was blocked by PJHQ, seemingly on the instructions of the attorney general, and we were instructed to implement a ‘suitably vetted’ Iraqi judge as a reviewing authority.

This was however, unworkable, unrealistic, ill-informed and based [seemingly] on the basis of what was happening in Baghdad.

I still remain bemused as to why there was such resistance to the establishment of a proper review of prisoners. I cannot understand the opposition to the aspiration towards the highest standards for UK prisoners including the appointment of a UK judge, and why such a decision went up to the attorney general.

Mercer said debate about the issue also wasted “very valuable” time and ignored what was happening on the ground. He said:

If the DIMU had been stood up with a UK judge as the independent reviewing authority, I believe we would not have encountered the tragedy with prisoners that unfolded, nor breaches of the European Convention on Human Rights, as there would have been suitable independent oversight, accountability and legal clarity.

Rejecting his request for a DIMU, a PJHQ official wrote:

The standards to which Nick refers are based on UK law. Whilst his advice might be appropriate for individuals locked up on a Saturday night in Brixton, they are not appropriate for detainees arrested by the Black Watch etc following a bit of looting in Basra.

Baha Mousa was working as a receptionist at the Ibn al-Haitham hotel in Basra, when it was raided by soldiers of the 1st Battalion the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment (1QLR) looking for weapons. He and several colleagues were arrested and taken to 1QLR’s base, where he died on 15 September 2003, having suffered 93 separate injuries.

The inquiry has heard that British soldiers used “conditioning” methods on Iraqi prisoners such as hooding, sleep deprivation and making suspects stand in painful stress positions, which were banned by the British government in 1972.

Mercer warned his superiors before the invasion that a shortage of manpower and resources meant British forces were in danger of violating the Geneva conventions on dealing with prisoners of war.

“In my view, the issue of prisoners had very low priority and was treated more as an inconvenience than an obligation under international law,” he said.

He also raised concerns with Major General Robin Brims, general officer commanding 1st (UK) Armoured Division, in March 2003 after witnessing 40 hooded Iraqi detainees kneeling or squatting in the sand with their arms cuffed behind their backs.

Mercer said he was told the treatment he saw was in accordance with British army doctrine on “tactical questioning” – the immediate interrogation of suspects to obtain valuable intelligence.

The use of hooding was banned throughout 1st (UK) Armoured Division in early April 2003, the inquiry heard.

But shortly after this, representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) expressed concerns about the treatment of prisoners of war on a visit to a British internment camp in Umm Qasr, southern Iraq.

On 20 May 2003, the military police’s special investigation branch told him six or seven detainees had died in British custody and that their deaths required investigation. As a result, Mercer immediately issued an order reminding UK troops that prisoners should be “treated with humanity and dignity at all times”, provided with water and food, and should never have their faces covered.

When he left Iraq, Mercer told his successor that the mistreatment of detainees was the most serious issue on the ground and had the potential to cause serious damage to British forces.

British military intelligence ‘ran renegade torture unit in Iraq’

The latest documents emerged during the inquiry into Baha Mousa show that British military intelligence ran a secret operation in Iraq which authorised degrading and unlawful treatment of prisoners.

Lawyers believe the new evidence supports suspicions that an intelligence unit – the Joint Forward Interrogation Team (JFIT) which operated in Iraq – used illegal “coercive techniques” and was not answerable to military commanders in Iraq, despite official denials it operated independently.

In a statement to the inquiry, Colonel Christopher Vernon said he raised concerns after seeing 30 to 40 prisoners in a kneeling position with sacks over their heads. He said those in charge said they were from the Defence and Intelligence Security Centre, based at Chicksands, Bedfordshire, the British Army’s intelligence HQ.

He was informed that “they were an independent unit and reported directly to their chain of command in London”. Hooding was “accepted practice” and would continue, he was told.

“They reiterated the point they were an independent unit and did not come under the command of the GOC1 (UK) Armed Div (the Iraq command),” he said. Asked by the inquiry last week whether there was “some sort of feeling generally in the Army the intelligence people were slightly on their own and running their own show”, Col Vernon replied: “I think you could say that.”

In a second statement, Colonel David Frend, a British Army legal adviser in Iraq, said he was told by a senior military intelligence officer in London that “there was a legitimate reason for it [hooding], they had always done it and they would like to continue to do it.” Col Frend said:

“My recollection is that he said that they – ie those at JFIT – had been trained to hood. My understanding from the conversation was simply the use of hessian sandbags as hoods were something that had been taught to members of the JFIT at some point prior to deployment [to Iraq] and that it was not a unilateral act by them.”

In a further email disclosed by the inquiry this week, Major Gavin Davies, a member of the Army’s legal team, wrote in March 2003:

“I have just spoken to S002 [/code] about the subject of placing [prisoners] in hoods in the UK facility.” He goes on to say that he was told that hooding is only until “high value” prisoners can be interviewed, and the length of hooding can last from an hour to 24 hours. The only other restriction, he wrote, “is that they may not sleep”.

Chicksands has always denied that it trained soldiers to use hoods, claiming that there may have been some confusion with its “conduct after capture” training programme.

However, a further email from a military legal officer based at Permanent Joint Headquarters in Northwood, also published last week, stated: “I have heard that Chicksands have denied teaching hooding and suggested that there may be confusion in the minds of those who have completed the conduct after capture course during which students are hooded. I find this implausible. The people I have spoken to are not stupid. It seems to me more likely that hooding is taught but for actions immediately on capture or for prisoner handling.”

In November, the human rights lawyer Phil Shiner, who represents Baha Mousa’s family and forced the public inquiry, lodged a further 14 cases of abuse, naming JFIT. This is the first time that evidence to support the claims from the British military has emerged. There are now 47 claims of abuse lodged against the Government.