Who killed Baha Mousa?

By Robert Fisk

The Independent

15 December 2004

Baha Mousa, 26, was working as a hotel receptionist in Basra 14 months ago when British troops surrounded the building and arrested seven men. They were taken to a British base and were reportedly hooded and beaten. Two days later, Mousa was dead. His family was given $3,000 in compensation and rejected a further $5,000. What they wanted was justice. Yesterday, after more than a year of official stonewalling, his relatives won a 'historic' ruling to force the MoD to hold an independent inquiry. Will the truth now be known?

Yesterday's ruling offers Mr Mousa's family the prospect of a proper investigation into the shameful, outrageous death of their 26-year-old son, who was arrested in front of his Iraqi police colonel father. Documents obtained by The Independent show beyond any doubt that Mr Mousa was killed in British Army custody. He was one among many whose deaths the British Ministry of Defence has tried to forget.

Two senior High Court judges ruled in favour of Mr Mousa's family, saying the United Kingdom's obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights extended to "outposts of the state's authority" in foreign lands; a subsequent inquiry will ask whether there had been an unlawful killing. The Mousa family could be entitled to damages from the British Government if Articles 2 and 3 of the Convention - which guarantee the right to life and freedom from torture and inhuman and degrading treatment - were breached.

British soldiers of the Queen's Lancashire Regiment surrounded a Basra hotel in September last year following information that weapons were being kept in the building. One of the owners was later arrested. When Daoud Mousa, an Iraqi police colonel, turned up at the hotel, he discovered his son lying on the ground with his hands tied behind his back. He told The Independent his son had seen British soldiers looting the hotel safe and that a British officer had later ordered the soldiers to hand the cash back and that they should be disarmed. Baha Mousa's father later claimed the British troops involved decided to revenge themselves upon his son because he had revealed the theft. In their written judgment yesterday, Lord Justice Rix and Mr Justice Forbes criticised "the dilatoriness of the investigative process'' conducted by the Special Investigation Branch (SIB) of the Royal Military Police, stating it was difficult to say whether the SIB investigation "has been timely, open or effective". Investigations by The Independentshowed that Mr Mousa repeatedly complained to his British attackers that he was having difficulty breathing.

Other Iraqi detainees were also reported to have been cruelly beaten. When Baha's father, Daoud, and brother, Alaa, went to see another of those arrested, Kifah Taha, they did not know Baha had been killed.

"Kifah looked like half a human, he was so badly beaten,'' Alaa said. "When we asked him about Baha, he said he didn't know. Then he said: 'I hope God will not show any human what I witnessed.'''

Colonel Daoud Mousa told The Independent after his son's death that a British officer, a 2nd Lieutenant, promised that his son would be protected after his arrest. "Three days later, I was looking at my son's body,'' the colonel said. "The British came to say he had 'died in custody'. His nose was broken. There was blood above his mouth and I could see the bruising of his ribs and thighs. The skin was ripped off his wrists where the handcuffs had been.''

Baha Mousa left two small boys, five-year-old Hassan and three-year-old Hussein. Both are now orphans, because Baha's 22-year-old wife had died of cancer just six months before his own death.

When The Independent initially made enquiries about Baha Mousa's death, British officers in Basra seemed unconcerned, referring all enquiries to the Ministry of Defence in London and repeating that the Queen's Lancashire Regiment was no longer operating in Southern Iraq.

Not one of the prisoners taken at the hotel said he had been questioned about the alleged discovery of weapons in the building. The arrested men were taken to the former Iraqi secret service headquarters of Ali Hassann al-Majid, Saddam Hussain's brutal cousin, known as "Chemical Ali'' for his gassing of the Kurds of Halabja, which was now part of a British military compound.

One of the detainees was to recount to The Independent an appalling story of cruelty: "We were put in a big room with our hands tied and with bags over our heads.

"But I could see through some holes in my hood. Soldiers would come in, ordinary soldiers, not officers - mostly with their heads shaved, but in uniform - and they would kick us, picking on one after the other.

"They were kick-boxing us in the chest and between the legs and in the back. We were crying and screaming. They set on Baha especially and he kept crying that he couldn't breath in the hood. He kept asking them to take the bag off and said he was suffocating.

"But they laughed at him and kicked him more. One of them said: 'Stop screaming and you will be able to breathe more easily'

"Baha was so scared. Then they increased the kicking on him and he collapsed on the floor. None of us could stand or sit because it was too painful.''