Army general quizzed over 'hooding'

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A senior Army officer was unaware that troops under his command wrongly believed hooding Iraqi prisoners was standard operating procedure, an inquiry heard today.

In April 2003, Major General Robin Brims, later promoted to Lieutenant General, outlawed the hooding of detainees throughout 1st (UK) Armoured Division, then serving in Iraq.

But asked if he was aware that some soldiers had been routinely hooding prisoners at the point of capture, Lt Gen said: "I did not see it."

The Lt Gen was giving evidence during an inquiry investigating allegations that British soldiers beat to death hotel receptionist Baha Mousa, 26, in Basra, southern Iraq, in September 2003.

It has heard that troops used "conditioning" methods on Iraqi prisoners, such as hooding, sleep deprivation and making them stand in painful stress positions with their knees bent and hands outstretched.

These techniques were outlawed by the Government in 1972 after an investigation into an interrogation in Northern Ireland.

Gerard Elias QC, counsel for the inquiry, asked Lt Gen Brims: "Did you know at the time of issuing that order that there were troops on the ground that believed it was a standard operating procedure to hood prisoners at the point of capture?"

The Lt Gen responded: "I didn't know at the time, I now know it, yes."

The Lt Gen insisted that he had not seen a standard operational procedure telling soldiers to use hoods at the point of capture.

But he said there was some confusion as to whether hooding prisoners was lawful or not.

The Lt Gen told the inquiry he gave an oral order to ban hooding after becoming concerned after witnessing a detainee at the Umm Qasr prisoner of war handling centre being moved while wearing a sandbag hood.

Mr Elias added: "It would have been desirable wouldn't it, that the order should have been cascaded down clearly, and therefore desirable in writing."

The Lt Gen replied: "At the time I didn't know that was the practice and therefore at the time it didn't seem to me that I needed to make an emphasis on this order."

Mr Elias said it "might be thought surprising" that soldiers under the Lt Gen's command had been hooding prisoners without his knowledge.

Lt Gen Brims replied: "I didn't see it. I didn't see prisoners being handled other than in the prisoner of war handling organisation."

He added: "Certainly after I had given the order I would expect people to have made sure that the order was being complied with and to have taken action appropriately if it wasn't complied with."

It emerged after Mr Mousa's death that he and other Iraqis detained with him had been forced to wear hoods and made to stand in stress positions for long periods.

Mr Elias asked whether questions surrounding the legality of hooding should have been raised at government level or with the Attorney General to get a "definitive view to what the law was".

Lt Gen Brims replied: "It was being discussed, I didn't need to raise it because it was being discussed by legal, because I was told what the legal adviser at various levels was saying and I was aware that the legal debate was going on at the higher level."

Mr Elias added: "Was this your understanding or belief that this was a decision that was likely to be taken at the highest level, to go up to the Attorney or ministers?"

Lt Gen Brims replied: "If necessary."

Asked how he felt after learning of Mr Mousa's death, the Lt Gen said: "I was appalled that anybody could die while in custody of soldiers and that the matter should be investigated thoroughly."

Inquiry chairman Sir William Gage asked: "Right about the time of your going into Iraq, if anybody had said to you is there a danger of soldiers beating up people they have captured, what would you have said to them?"

The Lt Gen replied: "I would have said no, because they know it's wrong.

"There will always be some people who break the law, the vast majority of soldiers know the law and they also know what the right thing to do is."

Geoff Hoon, former Defence secretary from 1999 to 2005 is expected to give evidence to the inquiry later today.

Ex-armed forces minister Adam Ingram admitted last week that he was "not accurate" when he told an MP in June 2004 that hooding was only used for security reasons while suspects were being transported.

The hearing has previously been told that Mr Hoon and Mr Ingram were copied in on a memo revealing that Mr Mousa was hooded for a total of nearly 24 hours during 36 hours in UK military custody before he died.

Both ministers also received another briefing document stating that Mr Mousa and the colleagues detained with him were apparently hooded on the advice of an expert interrogator.

In October 2003, the chief of joint operations at the military's Permanent Joint Headquarters (PJHQ) in the UK, Lieutenant General Sir John Reith, issued a fresh order banning hooding.

But when fresh prisoner abuse allegations were aired in May the next year, it emerged that UK special forces had continued to hood prisoners despite the instructions.

It was not until the morning of May 12 2004 that the practice stopped, a document released by the inquiry revealed.

The inquiry has heard that Lieutenant Colonel Nicholas Mercer, the Army's senior legal officer in Iraq at the time of the 2003 invasion, believed his "very serious" concerns about the treatment of prisoners were passed on to military headquarters in Britain "and/or ministers".