The ringleader of a group of British soldiers conducted a "choir" practice in which the "music" was the cries of pain from captive Iraqis as they were beaten, a court martial was told yesterday.
The "orchestrator" of the violence, it is alleged, was Cpl Donald Payne. The court was shown a video of him manhandling and screaming abuse at handcuffed and hooded prisoners who could be heard moaning in pain.
The Judge Advocate, Mr Justice McKinnon, ruled that the footage should not be publicly shown as it may put British soldiers in Iraq in danger. At the start of the proceedings at Bulford Camp, Wiltshire, Cpl Payne became the first British soldier to plead guilty to a war crimes charge.
As well kicking and punching his victims, he had tried to "gouge out the eyes" of one of the prisoners, Kifah Taha Mutairi, whom he had nicknamed "Grandad" and who had become a particular target for his abuse. Mr Mutairi suffered severe kidney damage and "may have died had he not received medical attention", the court heard.
Cpl Payne is charged with the manslaughter of Baha Mousa, 26, a hotel receptionist, who died with 93 injuries to his body. Julian Bevan QC, for the prosecution, said Cpl Payne had repeatedly smashed Mr Mousa's head against a wall and kicked him "very hard indeed" as he lay on the ground. After his death, Cpl Payne allegedly told fellow soldiers, "if anything comes of this, say he banged his own head against the wall".
Seven soldiers are accused over the killing of Mr Mousa and the assaults on the prisoners. Among them is Colonel Jorge Mendonca, the former commanding officer of the Queen's Lancashire Regiment (QLR), now renamed the Duke of Lancaster's Regiment. Col Mendonca is the most senior British officer to face charges over the Iraq war.
The video, shot by another soldier, shows a bare, white-walled room where the prisoners had been kept handcuffed with hessian sacks over their head in temperatures approaching 60C (140F). The court was told that they were starved and had water poured over them when they pleaded that they were thirsty. One soldier who visited the detention centre said the room "so stank of sweat and urine that it made him uncomfortable standing there".
The prisoners, who were arrested at a hotel in Basra on suspicion of being involved in insurgency, were put in a "stress position" to soften them up for questioning. But the prosecution said the extremely painful procedure continued long after questioning had ended.
In the film, Cpl Payne is seen ordering one prisoner to "fucking get down" and forces him into a knees-bent position before dragging him back up . Another detainee, unable to maintain the position, falls, prompting Cpl Payne to push him repeatedly screaming "Get up, get up, fucking get up".
The panel of military jurors was told that Cpl Payne "enjoyed conducting what he called 'the choir' for those that visited the detention facility" and appeared to have no fear about doing so in front of soldiers he did not know or about being filmed. "It is as if he did what he liked with impunity," said Mr Bevan. "The choir consisted of Cpl Payne assaulting each detainee in turn by, for instance, hitting in their stomachs, kicking them and punching them... their various noises constituting the music."
Another defendant, L/Cpl Wayne Crowcroft, was said to have told a fellow soldier in Cyprus, where he was then based, "we all kicked him to death". Mr Bevan said that was an admission that he was involved.
Cpl Payne, formerly of the QLR, admits inhumane treatment but denies manslaughter and perverting the course of justice. The other accused deny all charges. L/Cpl Crowcroft, 22, and Pte Darren Fallon, 23, of the Duke of Lancaster's Regiment, are accused of inhumane treatment, which is categorised as a war crime.
Sgt Kelvin Stacey, 29, of the Duke of Lancaster's Regiment, is accused under the British Army Act of assault occasioning actual bodily harm. Major Michael Peebles, 35, and Warrant Officer Mark Davies, 37, of the Intelligence Corps, face a charge of negligently performing a duty. Colonel Mendonca, 42, is also accused of negligently performing a duty.