The government is to admit "substantive breaches" of the European Convention on Human Rights over the death and torture of Iraqi civilians in the custody of British soldiers, Des Browne, the defence secretary, revealed yesterday.
The admission, which could cost the Ministry of Defence millions of pounds in compensation, relates to the death of Baha Mousa, a Basra hotel receptionist, and the abuse of eight other Iraqi civilians while held in a British detention centre during a weekend in September 2003. Mousa had 93 identifiable injuries on his body and suffered asphyxiation. In response to claims by Daoud Musa al-Maliki, Mousa's father, and the other Iraqis, the government is to admit the breaches of article three of the convention which guarantees the right to life and prohibits torture.
The move, announced by Browne in a written Commons statement, follows years of battles in the British courts. In the end, the law lords dismissed the MoD's case that British troops on overseas operations were not covered by European human rights law, leaving the MoD with little choice but to admit guilt and offer compensation. Leigh Day, the law firm acting for the Iraqis, has agreed to stay court proceedings until the end of June. In the meantime, both sides have agreed to mediation under the former lord chief justice, Lord Woolf. The Iraqis are claiming exemplary and aggravated damages from the MoD, Leigh Day said.
In a separate action, Phil Shiner, of Public Interest Lawyers, and human rights groups are seeking an independent inquiry into the deaths, required under the Human Rights Act, they say.
The call for an inquiry was echoed yesterday by Shami Chakrabarti, director of the human rights group Liberty. "A direct legal and moral consequence of [the] admission that Mousa and others were unlawfully tortured and killed in British custody is that there must be a wholesale independent inquiry into what went wrong," she said. "British soldiers should never be sent into post-conflict situations without adequate training and advice."
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Mousa's father, a colonel in the Iraqi police force, said: "This confession of guilt today is a victory for us. Now I can feel that my son's blood wasn't totally lost in vain. It seemed as if the Ministry of Defence wanted to cover the truth and thought that Iraqi lives were cheap. This admission shows that our voices can still be heard and that Iraqi lives do count."
After a three-year investigation costing more than £20m, the MoD admitted the Iraqis were ill-treated. At a six-month court martial, one soldier of the Queen's Lancashire Regiment pleaded guilty, but six others - including Colonel Jorge Mendonca, the commanding officer - were acquitted of negligence and abuse. Nobody was convicted of killing Mousa.
The court heard that British soldiers used "conditioning" techniques to "soften up" Iraqi detainees. It revealed that army officers had ignored a 1972 ban on hooding, stressing, sleep deprivation, food deprivation and noise.
Brigadier Euan Duncan, director of the army's Intelligence Corps, told the court martial that US commanders had criticised British forces in 2003 for failing to extract sufficient intelligence from detainees.
Bob Ainsworth, the armed forces minister, said yesterday: "I deeply regret the actions of a very small number of troops and I offer my sincere apologies and sympathy to the family of Baha Mousa and the other eight Iraqi detainees. All but a handful of the over 120,000 British troops who have served in Iraq have conducted themselves to the highest standards."
© 2008 The Guardian