British soldiers accused of violently abusing Iraqi prisoners appeared to have put up a "wall of silence" against investigators, a public inquiry heard yesterday.
One of the detainees, Baha Mousa, 26, was beaten to death in September 2003 while he was imprisoned by soldiers from the former Queen's Lancashire Regiment.
Counsel for the inquiry into his death Gerard Elias QC said today: "There is what might be described as a wall of silence in respect of certain aspects of the events in question.
"A number of crucial soldier witnesses claim an almost total inability to remember the events of 14 to 16 September 2003.
"Whilst fading memories are to be expected, given the gravity of matters, such apparent collective amnesia may be hard to believe.
"This position would seem to apply in particular to a number of the members of the multiple commanded by Lieutenant (Craig) Rodgers whose closeness to the events is self-evident.
"If - we stress it is for examination - if there is a wall of silence does that betoken a genuine loss of memory or something more sinister?"
It is claimed that 10 prisoners were beaten, forced to maintain painful stress positions and deprived of food and sleep over the three days that they were detained.
The prisoners were forced to wear hoods and plastic handcuffs, and it is alleged they were denied medical care, kept in "revolting" conditions and that soldiers posed for photos as if they were punching the prisoners.
Mr Elias said that the abuse appeared to have taken place openly and that "gratuitous" violence was used against the prisoners, for example when soldiers would hit them so their cries made a grizzly "choir".
He said: "The detainees have alleged that the soldiers appeared to be taking bets on who could knock detainees to the floor and sometimes they were laughing during the assaults. Similarly there are numerous accounts from the soldiers of the choir which appears to have been carried out for the soldiers' amusement."
Rumours were circulated that the men had been involved in the deaths of six members of the Royal Military Police but this was wrong, the inquiry heard.
Concerns about their treatment were raised by Territorial Army Major Peter Quegan who wrote in his diary "during most of the day there has been loud shouting of prisoners with sacks on their heads.
"It does not seem to comply with the law of armed conflict that we see as part of our ITDs (Individual Training Directive). It's simply described as conditioning, in effect psychological torture.
"Some of the prisoners look in pain and at least one looks puffy around the face so it may also be physical. It all seems both wrong and pointless."
Soldiers apparently failed to notice the prisoners' injuries and medical conditions, for example one known only as Detainee 6 had a heart complaint and another, Ahmad Al-Matairi, had a hernia.
The inquiry was shown a training video which stressed that enemy prisoners should be given medical care, only blindfolded if travelling through sensitive areas and that violence was counter-productive.
However, it did allow personnel to preserve the "shock of capture" by maintaining the prisoners' state of anxiety and not giving them food before interrogation.
The probe being held to determine how Mr Mousa died, who if anyone was responsible, and to examine the Army's use of so-called "conditioning" techniques.
Corporal Donald Payne, seen in a video released last week screaming obscenities at the prisoners, pleaded guilty to inhumanely treating civilians at a court martial in September 2006.
He was dismissed from the Army and sentenced to one year in civilian jail.
Another six soldiers who also faced court martial on war crimes relating to Mr Mousa's death were cleared.