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Thursday, September 08, 2011 

Justice at long last for Baha Mousa.

When the Saville inquiry into Bloody Sunday finally reported, I asked whether the forthcoming report into the death of Baha Mousa, coming just 7 years after his death could shine a similar light onto the excesses of the military. To the great credit of Sir William Gage and the team whom worked with him both on the report and during the inquiry, it does. It also asks a lot of questions which have yet to be properly answered.

To call Gage's conclusions devastating and his report meticulous in its dedication to getting as close to the truth as any investigator coming up against what was described at the previous court martial as an "obvious closing of the ranks" possibly could would not quite capture the true essence of what is an indictment of the state of the military prior to going into Iraq. It's a story of very young, often naive men being thrown in at the deep end, into a city (Basra) where security was rapidly disintegrating with the population turning against them, often expected to work 16 to 20 hour days in temperatures of between 40 degrees at night and 59 during the day, all with inadequate training, most especially when it came to the arresting of both "regime loyalists" and just general criminals, and all for dispiritingly low levels of pay.

This doesn't however even begin to explain why Baha Mousa and the others who were arrested with him on the 14th of September 2003 were treated with such a staggering level of brutality by some of the members of the 1 Queen's Lancashire Regiment. Gage also doesn't a reach a single overriding reason: he does however suspect, as had long been suggested, that the soldiers who took Mousa into custody and then subjected him to prolonged beatings, "stress positioning" and sleep deprivation for the next 36 hours believed he and his friends were responsible either for the deaths of six military police killed by a mob a couple of months earlier, or for the death of the popular Captain Dai Jones, a month before, pointing to it as the "principal cause". The only evidence they had which even suggested there were possibly insurgents was a cache of weaponry found at the hotel they worked at, which included a couple of grenades without fuses, pistols, two assault rifles and a large quantity of Iraqi dinars. There's nothing to suggest that during the conditioning and "tactical questioning" they subsequently underwent that they admitted, or even alluded to being involved in either of the incidents.

He also pinpoints exactly why the ranks closed during the previous court martial: far from this being the work of two or three out of control, revenge seeking servicemen, he names 19 separate soldiers as having some role in the violence meted out to the detainees. This doesn't include those who either witnessed what was going on, heard about it, or subsequently minimised what happened. One of these was 1QLR's padre, Father Peter Madden, who Gage found to be a "poor witness". Madden it seems found nothing untoward when he visited the detainees on the Monday, by which point the conditions in which they were being held should have spoken for themselves. Likewise, while the unit's regimental medical officer, Dr Derek Keilloh, was not criticised for his attempts to revive Mousa, it seems remarkable that at the time he maintains he had noticed no injuries on the body other than blood under his nose. The photographs of Mousa which have since been published were taken just after he was pronounced dead; they clearly show the extent of the beating he had received, let alone the 93 separate injuries which were subsequently identified.

All of which brings into sharp context the response of some following the court martial. One strutting, preening cock was Colonel David Black, who said soldiers had to be able to "work without looking over their shoulders, inhibited by the fear of such actions by an over-zealous and remote officialdom", while the local Tory MP Ben Wallace accused the then attorney general Lord Goldsmith of conducting a witch-hunt. The Sun, which considers itself the forces' paper to the great embarrassment of many serving in the army, referred to it as a "show trial" and the allegations, despite the very real death of Mousa and the extensive injuries to the other men detained as "so-called crimes".

The 73 separate recommendations made by Gage will hopefully address most of the problems identified. The one thing it doesn't comment on, and which the Chilcot inquiry must is the politicians who put them in such a desperate position in the first place, just about prepared for the initial conflict but not for what came afterwards. Ultimate responsibility must as always reside at the very top.

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