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Review: A Very British Killing, By AT Williams


“Who will care for my children now?” Those were the last, lamentable words of the 26-year-old hotel receptionist Baha Mousa, whose bruised face and battered body have, since his death in 2003 while under arrest by British troops, become one of the most notorious images to emerge out of the Allied occupation of Iraq.

AT Williams, a law professor at the University of Warwick, gives a finely detailed account of this case, from Mousa's arrest during a round-up at a Basra hotel, to the court martial that took place after his death.

His two days in detention were also the last two days of his life. Mousa's father, Daood, a former police major, was reassured that his son would be out within hours. Instead, he was hooded with sandbags and subjected to such brutality that his body had bruises the size of footballs. Yet once he was dead, many military personnel – officers, a padre, a duty doctor – saw nothing suspect.

Williams's narrative is no less shocking for his cool, forensic tone. The book, deservedly long-listed for the 2013 Orwell Prize, argues that the court martial was little more than farce, and that the terror to which Mousa was subjected was by no means an aberration.

Explosively, he highlights the breaches in protocol for the detention of suspects in Iraq. Men arrested were hooded and cuffed despite clear guidelines, even before questions of “torture” during interrogation are broached. For Williams, Mousa's death is an example of endemic malpractice and the abuse meted out to his fellow detainees “not an isolated incident”.

One of the greatest achievements of this incendiary, eloquent and angry book is that it humanises Mousa beyond the iconic photograph. He was determined not to be a victim in life despite various tragedies. His beloved wife had six months earlier died of cancer, leaving him to care for their two sons. His brother had died a year earlier; Mousa took in his children, too. This added burden was what led him, weeks before his death, to begin a second job at al-Haitham Hotel. His last lament sounds all the more grave, and tragic.