Legal Opinion: Family of Baha Mousa closer to compensation deal with the MoD

Nearly five years after the killing in Basra of an Iraqi hotel worker, Lord Woolf has agreed to help mediate the case. Robert Verkaik, Law Editor, reports
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The Independent Online

The killing of Baha Mousa has left a deep scar on the reputation of the British Army and helped to foment Iraqi opposition to the military occupation. Now, five years after the 26-year-old hotel receptionist from Basra was beaten to death by British soldiers, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has taken the first step towards answering a £1m compensation claim and finally bringing justice to one of the worst cases of abuse committed by the armed forces.

Lord Woolf, the former Lord Chief Justice, has agreed to act as the mediator on the claims brought by Baha Mousa's family and those of eight other Iraqis who claim to have suffered injuries in the same incident. The move could lead to a seven-figure compensation payment to the victims.

Harrowing accounts of the treatment of Mr Mousa and the other detainees have already been submitted to the High Court in support of demands for aggravated and exemplary damages from the MoD.

The lawyers claim on behalf of their clients that nine Iraqis seized in a Basra hotel in September 2003 were tortured. Baha Mousa, the receptionist at the al-Haitham, suffered 93 injuries and died in British custody.

This incident led to a court martial in which the MoD admitted the Iraqis were violently treated. One soldier, Corporal Donald Payne, pleaded guilty to inhumane treatment; six others, including Colonel Jorge Mendonca, commander of the 1st battalion the Queen's Lancashire Regiment, were acquitted of negligence and abuse.

The presiding judge, Mr Justice McKinnon, found that the Baha Mousa's injuries were sustained "as a result of numerous assaults over 36 hours by unidentified persons", but that there may have been a cover-up.

The judge said at the time: "None of those soldiers has been charged with any offence, simply because there is no evidence against them, as a result of a more or less obvious closing of ranks."

New documents served on the MoD include statements from witnesses who say they heard Mousa's "dying screams". At times the Iraqis were hooded, a practice banned by the British government in 1972.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Defence said that it would be inappropriate to comment on the mediation. Martyn Day, partner at Leigh Day & Co, for the Iraqis, said he hoped it would pave the way for a full and independent inquiry into Mr Mousa's death. He said: "These cases raise matters of crucial importance to us as a nation. The notion that nine men could have been tortured and abused by British soldiers to such a level that one of the victims dies, is not one that I ever thought I would witness. It is entirely fitting that the mediator for such a key case is the former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf. I am pleased that the MoD has agreed to the claims being mediated as this will hopefully result in the claims being resolved quickly and the men being able to see that justice is a fundamental part of British life."

But the Iraqi victims and their lawyers believe true justice will only come with a public inquiry into what went wrong.

r.verkaik@independent.co.uk

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