Analysis: No one scapegoat for Baha Mousa’s death

There is only one reaction to the "grave and shameful" treatment which led to Baha Mousa's death: utter horror. Which is why, when the inquiry's report attempts to explain the background for how this should come about, it is on distinctly shaky ground.

By Alex Stevenson

When does an interrogation become torture? When does treatment become cruel, degrading and inhuman? These are not black and white issues, which partly explains how the line can be crossed after many years of missed opportunities and neglect. The end result, it's clear, was horrific.

Baha Mousa died on September 16th 2003, two days after being detained by British forces serving in Basra, southern Iraq. He was an innocent 26-year-old hotel receptionist on September 14th. Two days later his body had 93 identifiable injuries, after being subjected to 36 hours of brutality. The gory details are truly shocking.

Let's try looking at this from the soldiers' point of view. They were engaged in the practise of 'conditioning' in a bid to extract as much information as possible from their captives. Prisoners are most likely to open their mouths when they're still experiencing the 'shock of capture'. So conditioning involves techniques used to prolong, maintain or enhance this mental state, Sir William explains.

The problem with this is that hooding – in which a hessian sandbag is placed over the head – was banned by former prime minister Sir Edward Heath in 1972. It had already been declared prohibited and unlawful in warfare under the Geneva Conventions. But there was some ambiguity, because it was not banned for blindfolding purposes. Sir William endorsed blindfolding for security purposes in his report, after all.

Two-and-a-half decades after Sir Edward's statement, in 1997, the MoD issued a revised policy for interrogation. But this didn't lead to a proper doctrine on interrogation being generally available by the time of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The Baha Mousa inquiry has concluded that this came about "by a corporate failure of the MoD".

So this death was not the result of a single crazed officer, or even a single crazed battlegroup. Just as 1 Queen's Lancashire Regiment's commanding officer at the time, Lieutenant Colonel Jorge Mendonca, failed by not knowing "precisely what conditioning involved", so the wider British military failed by not being clearer about the rules governing an obviously sensitive area. The fact that this was no one person's fault only makes Baha Mousa's death all the more frustrating.

No one person? It's hard not to think of Payne, who played a "fundamental role". He thought that hooding and stress positions were a standard operating procedure for dealing with detainees. But as the inquiry notes, this didn't justify using it for up to 36 hours or for the force used in applying them.

Payne was reduced to the ranks and sentenced to 12 months' imprisonment after pleading guilty to the offence of a war crime, namely inhuman treatment of a person protected under the provision of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Twelve months, eh? That's twice as long as many of those placed behind bars for their involvement in last month's riots, whose crimes including stealing a bottle of water.

There's a twist, as page 1,318 of the inquiry report notes. "On the day he gave evidence to the inquiry, Payne accepted that the case put forward by him at the court martial was not the whole truth and that the basis of his guilty plea had been false," it states.

"He conceded that he had used gratuitous violence on the detainees, including kicks and punches… I am driven to the conclusion that his actions demonstrate him to have been a violent bully."

That's one way of putting it. Today's inquiry shines a light on Baha Mousa's desperate, painful, brutal death at the hands of Payne and his men, seven years and 358 days ago. Many, reading its shocking contents, will want more than just the truth in the days to come.