Did British soldiers lose all control and decency at the notorious Camp Bucca?

As the MoD investigates the death of a seventh Iraqi in British custody, attention is focused on one detention camp
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Indy Politics

Photographs brought home from Iraq by a British soldier caused a scandal last year when he took them to be developed. One showed a prisoner of war, gagged and bound in netting, dangling from a forklift truck driven by a soldier. Others depicted squaddies performing sex acts close to Iraqi PoWs.

It may be understandable, though not excusable, that in the heat of battle troops do not always accord prisoners the dignity to which they are entitled. But the Army is now facing accusations of mistreatment of civilian detainees, several of whom have died in custody, long after the war was officially declared at an end.

Charges may soon be brought in the case of Baha Mousa, 26, who died after he and seven colleagues working at a Basra hotel were arrested by British soldiers of the Queen's Lancashire Regiment in September. The eight men had their hands tied and were all hooded during prolonged assaults in which the prisoners have described being "kick-boxed" by uniformed soldiers.

Mousa repeatedly complained to his British attackers that he was having difficulty breathing. When Baha's father, Daoud, and brother, Alaa, went to see Kifah Taha, one of those arrested, in hospital, they did not know Baha had been killed. "Kifah looked like half a human, he was so badly beaten," Alaa said. "When we asked him about Baha, he said he didn't know. Then he said: 'I hope God will not show any human what I witnessed.'"

Mr Taha said the soldiers had given their detainees the names of footballers. Ironically, the practice of giving false names to prisoners under assault or torture is common in Arab prisons. Iraqi inmates were often given fake names by their interrogators during torture sessions, and male prisoners have often been given female names by Egyptian prison wardens before being assaulted.

Mousa's father, an Iraqi police colonel who was present at the arrest, saw two British soldiers looting cash from a hotel safe. He brought this to the attention of the troops' commanding officer, who disciplined the soldiers on the spot and took their weapons. As a result, the Iraqi policeman believes, his son may have been singled out for revenge.

An Army spokesman confirmed last week that a soldier had been found on the date in question with a large sum of Iraqi money. He had been disciplined by his commanding officer and the other troops reminded of their duty in Iraq.

British military investigations have been carried out or are continuing into 37 deaths of Iraqi civilians since the end of the war. Nineteen of those were judged to be "insurgents", and the rules of engagement followed. Of the others, the Ministry of Defence says three were the result of road accidents and nine, one of whom was a 14-year-old boy, were shot during demonstrations.

Six were deaths in custody - a seventh case, which happened just before the war was declared over, is also being examined - but there are concerns over how long the investigations are taking.

The names of the seven who died in custody have been released by the MoD, but in most cases no details of age, sex, occupation or cause of death were included. The first was Ather Karen al- Mowafakia, who died on 29 April. Radhi Natna was judged to have died from natural causes on 8 May after a heart attack. But his family say he had no history of heart trouble, and questions remain over his treatment.

Abd Al Jubba Mousa, 53, a headmaster, was seen being beaten with rifle butts as he was led away. He died on 17 May. Nothing is known about the deaths of Ahmad Jabber Kareem on 8 May, Said Shabram on 24 May, or Hassan Abbad Said on 4 August.

Twenty-two MPs have called for an independent inquiry into Mousa's death. The Labour MP Harry Cohen said this should be extended to all deaths in custody, a call echoed by Amnesty International, which says the Army should not investigate itself.

The director of Amnesty International UK, Kate Allen, said: "Justice must be done and be seen to be done. Amnesty International has been calling on the coalition forces to investigate all cases of civilian deaths by their troops, and we believe that it is imperative that all investigations into allegations of human rights violations by members of the armed forces against civilians should be civilian-led and supervised."

"We've killed just one more terrorist than innocent civilians," said the Plaid Cymru MP Adam Price, who has asked a series of questions in Parliament on the issue. "It seems a little out of kilter. For every terrorist we kill, we kill an innocent civilian."

Until Christmas, all British detainees were taken to the Camp Bucca prison near the southern port city of Umm Qasr, about 70 miles from Basra. The camp is run by the Americans, but the British have a "secure and discrete" unit within the camp. Three American reservists were discharged from the army last month after being found guilty of abusing Iraqi prisoners last May, kicking and beating them in the groin, head and abdomen.

In their defence, they claimed there was poor morale among the troops and poor leadership.

One of the soldiers wrote in an email to a family member: "We've had a couple of riots here in the ... holding area. We were attacked and assaulted with rocks and stones. Two prisoners had to be shot during the riot. This took place on Palm Sunday. Four days later, during another uprising, two more prisoners were shot, with one being killed because he attempted to kill an MP [military policeman] with a steel tent stake."

Former prisoners speak of daily riots and poor conditions. Rahad Naif, 31, released from Camp Bucca in September, said: "The demonstrations happened almost every day at Bucca. Sometimes we'd fight the Americans with tent poles. The Americans would come at us behind riot shields, firing plastic bullets and electric pistols. We can't fight against that, we knew they'd win."

He said that the prisoners were demonstrating against what they considered to be their poor treatment in the camp. They would have to share a desert floor with scorpions and snakes. They had only one blanket at night, when it was below freezing, while daytime temperatures could reach 48C.