Two-and-a-half years ago, a court martial of seven soldiers accused of causing the death in 2003 of a Basra hotel receptionist, Baha Mousa, came to end with all but one of the accused cleared. That verdict provoked anger in some quarters at the fact that these soldiers had been put on trial in the first place. The Army and the Government were accused of hanging our brave servicemen out to dry. Yet that initial reaction now looks more misplaced than ever.
This month a public inquiry has been hearing testimony from soldiers about the brutal treatment endured by Mr Mousa, and other Iraqi prisoners, at the hands of British troops in Basra in 2003. A film has emerged showing hooded prisoners, possibly including Mr Mousa, being forced into stress positions.
And yesterday, former corporal Donald Payne (found guilty at the original court marital of inhumanely treating civilians) has testified that an officer was actively involved in the mistreatment of prisoners. This explosive testimony coincides with other disturbing allegations, brought to public attention by this newspaper last week, of Iraqi civilians being abused by British troops. Those cases should not be prejudged.
The courts are the right place for the details to be heard and the evidence tested. But while the legal system performs its necessary work, we should be very clear that there is nothing "pro-Army" about turning a blind eye to abuses of civilians by British troops. Nor is there anything unpatriotic about demanding that UK soldiers accused of mistreating foreign prisoners be held to account.
It is also unsatisfactory to dismiss cases of abuse as the work of a few "bad apples" and to eschew wider investigation. Where criminal behaviour comes to light, scrutiny and transparency are essential. And any hint of officers encouraging, or ignoring, brutal treatment of prisoners by their charges must be fully investigated.
So the Government deserves credit for ordering the public inquiry into the death of Mr Mousa last year, especially after the Army failed to bring those responsible for his death to justice. Two former soldiers have now admitted to the inquiry that they lied to military investigators. That does not say very much for the skills of those investigators – or perhaps their determination to uncover the truth. If abuse of prisoners takes place, those responsible must face justice. This is directly in the interests of the Army. Such behaviour blackens the names of the majority of British servicemen and women who conduct themselves admirably and would be disgusted by what took place in Basra.
The American military made considerable efforts to clean up its act after the revelations of abuse by US personnel at Abu Ghraib. It is vital that our own military undergoes a similar cleansing process. If there is any ambiguity whatsoever about the legality of certain interrogation techniques, such as hooding and stress positioning, military training clearly needs to be improved.
Such reforms cannot wait. The role of the British Army has changed considerably in the past decade. One of the primary duties of troops now is to win the support of wary civilian populations. The kind of abuse which took place in Basra is nothing short of a disaster for Britain strategically.
But, first and foremost, it is poisonous to the reputation of the British Army. No matter how uncomfortable the process, we must draw that poison and resolve to put right what has plainly gone wrong.Reuse content