'The British said my son would be free soon. Three days later I had his body'

Robert Fisk reports from Basra on the 'death in custody' of the son of an Iraqi police colonel and evidence that he was savagely and deliberately beaten to death by British soldiers

04 January 2004

The last time Lieutenant Colonel Daoud Mousa of the Iraqi police saw his son Baha alive was on 14 September, as British soldiers raided the Basra hotel where the young man worked as a receptionist.

"He was lying with the other seven staff on the marble floor with his hands over his head," Col Mousa says today. "I said to him: 'Don't worry, I've spoken to the British officer and he says you'll be freed in a couple of hours.'" The officer, a second lieutenant, even gave the Iraqi policeman a piece of paper and wrote "2Lt. Mike" on it, alongside an indecipherable signature and a Basra telephone number. There was no surname.

"Three days later, I was looking at my son's body," the colonel says, sitting on the concrete floor of his slum house in Basra. "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 orphans, because Baha's 22-year-old wife died of cancer just six months before his own death.

No one hides the fact that most if not all the eight men picked up at the Haitham hotel - where British troops had earlier found four weapons in a safe - were brutally treated while in the custody of the Royal Military Police. One of Baha's colleagues, Kifah Taha, suffered acute renal failure after being kicked in the kidneys; a "wound assessment" by Frimley Park Hospital in Britain states bluntly that he suffered "generalised bruising following repeated incidents of assault".

When Col Mousa and another of his sons, Alaa, visited Kifah Taha in a Basra hospital immediately after his release to seek news of Baha, they found the wounded man - in Alaa's words - "only half a human, with terrible bruises from kicking on his ribs and abdomen. He could hardly speak."

But another of Baha's colleagues - who pleaded with The Independent on Sunday not to reveal his name lest he be rearrested by British forces in Basra - gave a chilling account of the treatment the eight men received once they arrived at a British interrogation centre in Basra. By a terrible coincidence, the building had formerly been the secret service headquarters of Ali Majid, Saddam's brutal cousin, known as "Chemical Ali" for his gassing of the Kurds of Halabja and later military governor of the Basra region.

"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 breathe in the hood. He kept asking them to take the bag off and said that he was suffocating. But they laughed at him and kicked him more. One of them said: 'Stop screaming and you'll 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."

But not one of the prisoners says he was questioned about the discovery of the weapons in the hotel. Indeed, the man who hid the two rifles and two pistols in the hotel safe - one of the partners in the hotel, Haitham Vaha - fled the building after the British arrived and is still on the run. His father and another business partner, Ahmed Taha Mousa - no relation to either Kifah Taha or Baha Mousa - are still in British custody in southern Iraq. At least one of the men beaten by the British says that he would happily hand Haitham to the British forces if he found him.

Amnesty International has demanded an impartial and independent inquiry into Baha's death and the mistreatment of the other Iraqi prisoners, but the Ministry of Defence is attempting to keep its investigation within the Army. Two soldiers originally arrested in connection with Baha's death have since been released - and Baha Mousa's family is outraged. "We are going to sue the British Army in London," his brother Alaa says. "They gave us $3,000 in compensation, then said we could have another $5,000 - but they wouldn't accept responsibility for his murder.

"We reject this money. We want justice. We want the soldiers involved to be punished. How much would a British family receive if their innocent son was arrested by your soldiers and beaten to death?"

The Mousa family were given an international death certificate by the British Army at the Shaibah military medical centre outside Basra. It was dated 21 September, but again carried an indecipherable signature. It stated that Baha's death had been caused by "cardiorespiratory arrest: asphyxia". But the anonymous British officer who signed the document failed to fill in the column marked "due to/as a consequence of". He also failed to fill in the column marked "approximate interval between onset (of asphyxia) and death". More seriously still, the British Army failed to complete the form's request for "Regt. Corps/RAF Command" and "Ship/Unit/RAF Station".

An inquiry was opened into Baha Mousa's death on 18 September by 61 Section of the 3rd Regiment, Royal Military Police's Special Investigation Branch. Captain G Nugent, the officer commanding 61 Section, named a Staff Sergeant Jay as chief investigating officer of case number 64695/03. From the start, the SIB were faced with overwhelming evidence that British soldiers had kicked and beaten the prisoners in their custody.

Major James Ralph, the anaesthesia and intensive care consultant at the British Military Hospital's 33 Field Hospital at Shaibah, stated in a letter - a copy of which is in the IoS's possession - that Kifah Taha "was admitted to our facility at 22.40 hours on 16th September. It appears he was assaulted approximately 72 hours ago and sustained severe bruising to his upper abdomen, right side of chest, left forearms and left upper inner thigh." He described Kifah Taha as suffering from "acute renal failure".

Col Daoud Mousa says that his son was deliberately kicked to death by the soldiers because they discovered that his father had persuaded the British officer - "Second Lieutenant Mike" - to arrest several British soldiers who were stealing money from the hotel during the raid. "I saw two of the soldiers at the back of a safe, wrenching it open and stuffing money into their shirts and pockets - Iraqi dinars and foreign money. The officer made one of the men open his shirt and he found the money and the soldier was disarmed. But the military inquiry didn't want to hear about this - they weren't interested in the theft or why the soldiers who were stealing the money would want to mistreat my son as a result of what I did."

Alaa says that it was three days before they learned the truth about what had happened to Baha. "I was at home and I went outside to find the street filled with British soldiers. They didn't have Baha's name right, but they said they were looking for the family of the man 'whose wife died of cancer'. I said it must be Baha and one of the officers said: 'Can you come with us?'

"A sergeant came into our home, his name was Jay, and he sat on our sofa and said: 'I have come to tell you about the death of your brother Baha.' It was like a revolution in our house - there was screaming and shouting and crying. The British said they wanted my father, Daoud, and one of us to come to identify the body. He said a doctor from Britain was coming to examine the body." Alaa described how he later met a "Professor Hill", a pathologist who, he says, later acknowledged that there were "very clear signs of beating on the body" and that two of Baha's ribs had been broken.

Robert Harkins, the British political officer in the city, arranged for the Mousa family to meet Brigadier William Moore, commander of British forces in Basra. The family say that Brig Moore, though he expressed his condolences to Daoud Mousa, refused to allow an Iraqi lawyer to participate in the British inquiry. "He told us that since this had happened inside the British Army, the British Army would conduct the investigation," Alaa says.

The brigadier issued a statement on 3 October, expressing his "regrets" that their son "died while under British jurisdiction" and promising that if the military police concluded that a crime had been committed, "those suspected will be tried ... under the laws of the United Kingdom." The family initially accepted $3,000 of compensation for Baha's death - they say they thought that by offering this, the British were accepting responsibility - but they refused to sign a letter they received last month from a British claims officer called Perkins which offered a further $5,000 as a "final settlement" of the "incident" which would be made "without admission of liability on behalf of the British Contingent of the Coalition Forces in Iraq".

An MoD spokeswoman said yesterday that "as far as I'm aware, as of the beginning of December, the investigation was ongoing - nothing in our records suggests it is not still ongoing". But no charges appear to have been made, no soldiers are currently under arrest and Alaa Mousa and his father Daoud remain infuriated by their treatment.

"Are the soldiers responsible for killing Baha to go unpunished?" Alaa asks. "Why can't we be involved in this? If these men have no punishment, they will do this again.

"We are not saying the British are 'occupiers'. We think you came here to Basra to save us from Saddam. But you should not treat my family like this, just paying us money when you kill Baha and ... then stopping us being involved in finding out what really happened. If you go on like this, your 'big welcome' in Basra will be over."