This article appeared in the Guardian on 14th March 2007.
· Courts martial questioned after latest acquittals
· 'Overzealous officialdom' accused by colonel
Steven Morris and Audrey Gillan
Britain's military court martial system was called into question last night after two soldiers became the latest in a series of troops to be acquitted of offences against Iraqi prisoners.
Major Michael Peebles, 35, and Warrant Officer Mark Davies, 37, both of the Intelligence Corps, were among seven men put on trial in relation to the alleged ill-treatment of Iraqis arrested in Iraq in the summer of 2003. Both were yesterday found not guilty of negligently performing the duty of ensuring the Iraqis were not ill-treated by soldiers under their command.
Last month, four soldiers from the Queen's Lancashire Regiment, including its former commander in Iraq, Colonel Jorge Mendonca, 43, were cleared on a judge's orders due to lack of evidence.
The six-month-long, £20m prosecution was condemned yesterday by Colonel David Black of the Queen's Lancashire Regiment, who said it had been brought by an "overzealous and remote officialdom". He criticised the attorney general for taking the case to court.
However, the outcome was described as a "travesty" which "gave the victims nothing" by Phil Shiner, the lawyer representing the family of Baha Mousa, a 26-year-old Iraqi killed in a detention centre controlled by the regiment.
He said: "Mr Justice McKinnon found that the evidence was clear that these injuries were 'sustained as a result of numerous assaults over 36 hours by unidentified persons'. He said 'none of those soldiers has been charged with any offence simply because there is no evidence against them as a result of a more or less obvious closing of ranks'. It was in the words of one soldier witness a 'free for all'. It appears to be nothing less than systematic punishment on behalf of 1 QLR in the mistaken belief that these Iraqis were responsible for the death of one of the battalion."
The prosecution alleged that Iraqi detainees were handcuffed, hooded with sacks, deprived of sleep and forced to maintain a "stress position" - backs to the wall, knees bent and arms outstretched. If they dropped their arms they were punished with beatings. One prisoner alleged he was threatened with lighted petrol and another said he was forced to urinate into a bottle which was then tipped over him while he was held in a detention centre in Basra, southern Iraq. The violence culminated with the killing of Mr Mousa, who died after being so badly beaten that he suffered 93 injuries, the court heard.
It was told that such rough treatment of prisoners was known as "conditioning" and was used before questioning. Whether such treatment was legal became the centre of the case with a key witness, Major Anthony Royce, claiming that he had been told conditioning was legitimate. At the start of the court martial, Corporal Donald Payne, 35, of the QLR, admitted the war crime of treating the Iraqis inhumanely. He became the first British convicted war criminal and is awaiting sentencing.
Also charged with inhumane treatment were Lance Corporal Wayne Crowcroft, 22, and Private Darren Fallon, 23. They were acquitted on the instructions of Mr Justice McKinnon due to a lack of evidence. The military panel who sit as a jury were also ordered to find Sergeant Kelvin Stacey, 30, not guilty of assault.
A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: "Today's judgment has been an important one and we will need time to consider fully the serious implications. In very difficult and dangerous circumstances in Iraq, our forces do a superb job. However, we need to maintain both operational effectiveness and the public's trust and confidence. If, as a result of this trial, which is still ongoing, lessons need to be learned, we shall do so."
Gilbert Blades, solicitor for Maj Peebles, said the case highlighted the flaws of the court martial process. "No one who was prosecuted in this case, with one exception, should have been prosecuted. If charges are brought, the case should be capable of standing up to scrutiny by the court," he said.
"The SIB [the Special Investigations Branch of the Royal Military Police] are not awfully well equipped in relation to the latest technology and they are undermanned: you put all that together and it is not surprising that they are not achieving the results that you would expect them to.
"Coupled with that is the flaw with the decision-making process ... on who to prosecute. But, as I understand, the decision was actually made by the attorney general, so his judgment has to be questioned."