This ruling exposes our Government's shameful attitude to Iraqi human rights

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The Independent Online

Yesterday's ruling in the High Court, concerning the suspicious death of a young Iraqi, is a historic victory for a civilised conception of human rights and an important reminder to our Government of its responsibilities to the people of Iraq.

Yesterday's ruling in the High Court, concerning the suspicious death of a young Iraqi, is a historic victory for a civilised conception of human rights and an important reminder to our Government of its responsibilities to the people of Iraq.

In January our sister paper, The Independent on Sunday, revealed that Baha Mousa, a hotel receptionist arrested in Basra by the Queen's Lancashire Regiment, had died while in British custody. Those arrested with Mr Mousa claim he was killed by British soldiers.

Mr Mousa's family feel that the British Army never investigated their son's death properly. Lawyers representing the family in the High Court demanded recourse to justice under the European Convention on Human Rights, arguing that since the Army was in control in that part of Iraq when Mr Mousa died, British justice is applicable.

Lord Justice Rix and Mr Justice Forbes found in favour of the family. The Army's investigation into Mr Mousa's death was judged to have been woefully inadequate and there is now likely to be an independent inquiry. The judges also ruled that since Mr Mousa was being held in the custody of the Army when he died, his family is, indeed, entitled to claim British civilian justice. This includes the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees the right to life and freedom from torture. For Mr Mousa's family this will be a relief. It means they have a chance of finding out what happened to their son.

The High Court ruling also shows how reprehensible the conduct of the British Army and the Ministry of Defence has been throughout this whole affair. Lord Justice Rix and Mr Justice Forbes strongly criticised "the dilatoriness of the investigative process" conducted by the Royal Military Police's Special Investigations Branch. The allegations over how Mr Mousa died were of the utmost seriousness. It is claimed that he was subjected to beatings to his neck and genitals and that he was kicked in the chest until he eventually died. Other prisoners spoke of their experiences of being hooded, deprived of sleep and dunked in freezing water. These alleged abuses are on a par with what happened at Abu Ghraib. But, despite this testimony, those charged with investigating Mr Mousa's death saw no need for urgency.

The manner in which Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, has resisted an independent inquiry into Mr Mousa's death has been scandalous. At first, the Government's lawyers argued that an inquiry would destroy the capability of the Army to wage war since it would be unable to operate freely in future. But Mr Mousa was taken into custody when major hostilities had ended. Thankfully, the judges in this case took the view that holding British soldiers accountable if a civilian dies in their custody is by no means the same thing as denying them the ability to defend themselves or conduct legitimate operations.

The Government's second line of defence was perhaps even more distasteful. It tried to claim that the UK never had effective control of south-east Iraq and that, as a result, Iraqis could not claim access to British justice. It is deeply worrying that our Government, which claims to be taking part in a noble operation to liberate the Iraqi people, should seek to hide behind such a wretched piece of legal sophistry. Despite the moral rhetoric, our Government seems to think Iraqis are only entitled to a lower standard of justice. But again, the judges brushed this argument aside and ruled firmly that the death of Mr Mousa falls under the jurisdiction of British justice.

Yesterday's verdict was not wholly satisfactory, however. The court ruled out inquiries into the deaths of five other Iraqis at the hands of British forces on the grounds that they occurred in regular operations. Yet, some of these killings are just as suspect as that of Mr Mousa. Their families should exercise their leave to appeal. As for our Government, it must accept that it is not enough simply to talk about its devotion to upholding human rights around the world. It must prove it.

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