Up to seven Iraqi prisoners died in British custody in the first two months after the country's 'liberation', leading to an investigation by the military police, an inquiry revealed yesterday.
The deaths, which came amid rising reports of detainee abuse, "shocked" UK officials. A senior officer in the Army's legal team issued an urgent directive reminding troops of their obligations under the Geneva Convention, while a political advisor to the military alerted his superiors about the worrying developments.
The disclosure of the deaths came at a public inquiry held in central London into the killing of another Iraqi prisoner, hotel worker Baha Mousa. That death took place four months after Lt Col Nicholas Mercer, Commander Legal at the 1st (UK) Armoured Division, had issued his directive and repeatedly expressed his concern about detainee handling.
Lt Col Mercer declared that the "tragedy that unfolded need never have happened" if the British government had taken heed of warnings, by him and others in Basra, about detainee abuse.
In a statement to the inquiry, Lt Col Mercer said he was told about the first fatality in custody on 20 May 2003, subsequently "The SIB [Special Investigation Branch] spoke to me and informed me that they thought there were five or six deaths which required investigation".
Lt Col Mercer informed Nick Ayling, a political advisor to the British forces, about the SIB inquiry. "I recall his shock at the numbers being investigated. He then sent an e-mail up his POLAD [political advisor] chain of command," he said yesterday. The result of the investigation into the initial seven deaths has not been made public.
The Army has now set up an inquiry to examine all Iraqi civilian deaths from the time of the invasion to the British withdrawal from Iraq last year.
According to official documents, the detainees who had died in custody at the time Lt Col Mercer received his initial warning on 20 May included: Athar Karem Ali Mowfakia and Radhi Nama, both on 8 May; Abdel al- Jabbar Moussa Ali on 17 May and an unnamed man on 12 May. Sayeed Shabam died on 24 May.
In September that year Mr Mousa, a 26-year-old hotel worker, died from 93 separate injuries after being arrested by British troops in Basra.
In a scathing account of the treatment of prisoners leading up to the killing, Lt Col Mercer said: "The Divisional Headquarters found itself in the extraordinary position of seeking the highest standards for prisoners but being knocked back by those in senior legal and political posts.
"I am still amazed that we had to fight so hard for basic Geneva Convention rights for prisoners. The indifference, of course, was exacerbated by the total failure to plan for the occupation and the vacuum it created... it is all about proper education, training and the moral compass."
Lt Col Mercer blamed the then Attorney General Lord Goldsmith – responsible for providing the bitterly disputed legal justification for the Iraq invasion – for blocking key reforms which could have prevented prisoner abuse. In particular Lord Goldsmith rejected a request for a British judge and an independent review team to oversee the treatment of captives.
Lt Col Mercer said: "I still remain bemused as to why there was such resistance to the establishment of a proper review of prisoners. I cannot understand the opposition to the aspiration towards the 'highest standards' for UK prisoners, including the appointment of a UK judge, and why such a decision went up to the Attorney General."
He said the sight of prisoners in British custody, hooded and with their hands tied behind their backs in stifling heat, was "Like seeing a picture of Guantanamo Bay for the first time. It was quite a shock." In his view, hooding and detainees being forced into stress positions was illegal, he said.
However the Government was so keen to defend the practices that Lt Col Mercer was asked by a Whitehall official not to say anything during a meeting with the International Committee of the Red Cross, despite his role as chief legal advisor to divisional headquarters and a number of other units. Lt Col Mercer said he abided by the instruction. But, he continued: "I was so appalled by the attempts to justify the conduct of the United Kingdom that I walked out of the meeting and went to get some fresh air."
Baha Mousa: Background to his death
8 April 2003
First questions arise about British legal powers in occupied Iraq. Royal Marines seek permission to shoot looters. They are refused by Lt Col Nicholas Mercer in his role in Army Legal Services.
16 April 2003
Lt Col Mercer produces paper on detainees and the need to review the system, including the possibility of a British judge overseeing their treatment and an independent body monitoring prisoner handling. The proposal is blocked in the UK on the instruction of the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, despite the Ministry of Defence's own directive that "it is important that detention by UK forces meets the highest standards and can stand up to possible international criticism". Lt Col Mercer and his colleagues are told to find an Iraqi judge instead.
20 May 2003
Special Investigation Branch informs Lt Col Mercer of the death of one prisoner and of the need to investigate five or six other deaths. He issues an urgent directive on prisoner handling. A political adviser, Nick Ayling, alerts his chain of command about the high number of deaths in custody. Their warnings, and those of others, says Lt Col Mercer, are ignored.
15 September 2003
Baha Mousa, a 26-year-old prisoner, dies after sustaining 93 separate injuries while in British custody.Reuse content