The Ministry of Defence bowed to pressure from the courts yesterday and agreed to an independent public inquiry into one of the most notorious episodes involving British troops in Iraq: the death of Baha Mousa, a hotel receptionist, in Basra in September 2003.
After years of legal argument and a court martial in which the judge accused soldiers of erecting a "wall of silence", the MoD accepted that an independent inquiry was needed to find out why Mousa died in British custody with 93 separate injuries on his body and why eight other Iraqi civilians held with him were abused. ]#
General Sir Richard Dannatt, the head of the army, welcomed the decision, saying he was determined to establish how the "disgraceful incident" occurred.
Des Browne, the defence secretary, who is believed to have personally pressed for an inquiry, told MPs he hoped it would reassure the public that "no stone has been left unturned".
Dannatt said: "Important questions have yet to be answered about how and why [Mousa's death] occurred." He said the army would give the inquiry its "fullest cooperation". It had no wish to hide anything and he wanted to get "under the skin" of what happened. He said only a "small number of individuals" had let the army down. But an inquiry must also find out whether the underlying cause of the incident had been a "systemic" failure in the army and in the way soldiers were trained, he added. The inquiry would examine why the soldiers involved, and other senior figures in the British army, were apparently unaware that five interrogation techniques - wall standing, hooding, subjection to noise, sleep deprivation, and deprivation of food and drink - were banned. They were prohibited in 1972 by Edward Heath, then prime minister, after the European human rights court condemned British security forces in Northern Ireland. Phil Shiner, lawyer for the Iraqis, said an inquiry must investigate other allegations of abuse by British soldiers, notably concerning the deaths and mistreatment of Iraqis in Abu Naji facility in May. But Bob Ainsworth, the armed forces minister, made it clear he wanted the inquiry's terms of reference, yet to be decided, to be as narrow as possible. "If they are drawn too widely, not sufficient weight will be given to the death [of Mousa] itself," he said. Ainsworth said the case had "nil" to do with the Human Rights Act. But the act demands that an independent public inquiry be set up in the wake of evidence of serious wrongdoing by agents of a state.
The MoD has admitted that British soldiers breached the act, specifically the principles enshrining the right to life and prohibition on torture. Well-placed Whitehall officials said yesterday's announcement was triggered by an anticipated order from a high court judge to set up an inquiry at a hearing due to have taken place yesterday.
The MoD's decision spared the government the embarrassment of that expected order and the hearing was cancelled. Ministers have yet to appoint a judge to preside over the inquiry which will be held under the Inquiries Act 2005 which gives ministers a potentially significant say over how public inquiries should be conducted.
At a court martial, six soldiers of the Queen's Lancashire Regiment, including Colonel Jorge Mendonca, the commanding officer, were acquitted of negligence and abuse over Mousa's death and the ill-treatment of the other Iraqis. A corporal admitted inhumane treatment. No one was convicted of killing Mousa.
Shiner, who also represents families of British soldiers killed in Iraq, said: "It will not be sufficient if the inquiry has a narrow remit and does not look at all the cases and issues. The public, as well as parliament, must be given the opportunity of fully understanding what went wrong in our detention policy in Iraq and what are the lessons to be learned for the future."
Shami Chakrabarti, director of the civil rights group Liberty, compared the potential impact of the inquiry to that into the death of Stephen Lawrence. She said: "As the Stephen Lawrence inquiry was to the Metropolitan police so the Baha Mousa inquiry must be for the British military. It has been sparked by one case but they are going to have to look root and branch at how the British military treats people who are detained."
Redress, which campaigns for torture survivors, said it welcomed the announcement but said the proposed inquiry did not go far enough. "It should cover all serious allegation of civilian abuse," said Carla Ferstman, Redress's director.