Leadership failings blamed for abuse of Iraqi prisoners

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The Independent Online

Neglect of duty by senior military officers led to abuse of captive Iraqi civilians and the use of interrogation techniques forbidden by the British Army for more than 30 years, a court martial was told yesterday.

Colonel Jorge Mendonca, the former commanding officer of the Queen's Lancashire Regiment, and Major Michael Peebles and Warrant Officer Mark Davies, of the Intelligence Corps, were accused of failing to have a checking system which could have prevented assaults which left one prisoner, Baha Mousa, dead and others seriously injured.

MajPeebles, 35, WO Davies, 37, and ColMendonca, 42, each face a charge of negligently performing their duties.

The Iraqis had been arrested on suspicion of involvement with insurgents, and soon after the deaths of six British Royal Military Policemen in a gun battle at Majar al-Kabir in Maysan province and Captain Dai Jones, an officer in the First Battalion Queen's Lancashire Regiment, who was killed by a bomb attack near Basra.

Maj Peebles had referred to the prisoners as "terrorist suspects", the court was told.

Julian Bevan QC, for the prosecution, said: "This failure to have a checking system in place has to be seen in light of the fact that the soldiers, who are in charge of persons suspected of being a threat to the coalition forces, could be tempted to behave out of line, abuse them and ill-treat them."

Mr Bevan said, bearing in mind the recent deaths of the British servicemen, the officers in charge should have been even more alert to the possibility of ill-treatment.

Left unchecked and unsupervised, the soldiers kept the detainees hooded, deprived of sleep and in the "stress position" (standing knees bent, arms outstretched) for a 36-hour period, the court was told.

This contravened the prisoners' rights within law to be treated humanely. The technique had been forbidden since a 1972 government investigation into practices in Northern Ireland. In addition the British military's intelligence specialists have also said the method was counter-productive in gaining information, Mr Bevan said.

Furthermore, in contravention of a standing order in the Queen's Lancashire Regiment, the detainees were held at a temporary holding facility for more than 14 hours, the court heard.

The nine arrested Iraqis were taken to the holding base for tactical questioning, under Maj Peebles' command, in order to find out whether they were a risk to the occupation forces.

Addressing the failure to move them on to other facilities, Mr Bevan said: "The consequences were that these detainees were held, cuffed, hooded, deprived of sleep and, for the most part, held in the stress position in extreme heat and increasingly unsanitary conditions for over 36 hours until the death of Baha Mousa. The result was that Corporal Payne and the guards were left to act as they wished."

Cpl Donald Payne, 35, has admitted to the inhuman treatment of the Iraqis, but denies charges of manslaughter and perverting the course of justice. L/Cpl Wayne Crowcroft, 22, and Pte Darren Fallon, 23, are have denied a charge of inhuman treatment. Sgt Kelvin Stacey, 29, is accused of assault occasioning actual bodily harm with an alternative count of common assault.

The case continues.