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It was the insouciance, the absolute indifference of the British military press office in Basra that shocked me.
Here I had documents–one of them signed by a British officer–stating that Baha Mousa had died in British custody, another that Mousa’s colleague had been “assaulted” when he too was a prisoner and suffered “acute renal failure”, the statement of his father that the British army waited three days before admitting to the family that he was dead–and the British spokesman said he couldn’t help.
Tony Blair was about to arrive in Basra. Everyone was busy. Why didn’t I call the Ministry of Defence in London? There were yawns. Not a word of compassion about the dead man, whose wife had just died of cancer, not even a word for his small and now orphaned sons.
This was at almost the same moment that the British and Americans were told by the International Red Cross of the US military’s brutality at Abu Ghraib–and did nothing about it. When British and American soldiers died, we named them, identified them, mourned them. When Iraqis died, we simply didn’t care.
I will always remember the way in which Baha Mousa’s brother Alaa told me how a British sergeant came to their home and identified himself as “Jay”: “He sat on our sofa and said, ‘I have come to tell you about the death of your brother Baha.’ There was screaming and shouting and crying.”
Baha Mousa had been brutally beaten while hooded and tied up–none of the other prisoners suffering with him were ever charged with any crime–by soldiers who gave them the names of footballers. His father was a police colonel and had seen his son before his arrest at a local hotel. He even acquired a note from the arresting officer that Baha would be looked after. His name–typically–was meaningless: it was signed “Second Lieutenant Mike”.
Col Mousa was in tears. “What can I do?” he had asked me, and I just said to him: the law, get a lawyer, contact Amnesty, take it to London. I never saw him again, but his family’s case shows that if the British army and the Government are indifferent to the suffering of Iraqis–especially when “our” side causes that suffering–there are honest men and true ready to right such wrongs. But not enough of them. The two senior High Court judges who ordered the MoD to hold an independent inquiry into Baha Mousa’s brutal death will not be able to cure the malaise of almost reckless apathy in the face of such injustice which contaminates so many armies, including our own.
Enquiring into British army brutality in Northern Ireland, I was met with the same weary, casual air by a previous generation of press officers and underlings.
Rereading my notebooks of post-invasion Iraq, I find they are filled with stories of other Baha Mousas: an old man from Fallujah who died of ill-treatment and ended up on a slab at Abu Ghraib, of cruel beatings in the same prison, of almost countless innocent Iraqis shot down by trigger-happy American–and British–soldiers.
I know the old argument: Saddam was worse. But must we always compare ourselves to this tyrant when we want to promote our dubious innocence? And must the officers of these occupation armies in Iraq always become indignant at the mere suggestion that their troops have killed the innocent when they must know that they have?
Imagine if Iraqi occupation forces beat up and killed a 26-year-old British hotel worker in Manchester and then showed indifference towards his death. Or tried to palm the family off with a quick cash payment to absolve themselves of liability–which is what the British tried to do.
It’s easy to suggest an answer to all this: the setting up of a special system of justice in Iraq to deal with all such cases, immediately and in public. But it wouldn’t work. Even the Royal Military Police dragged their feet over Baha Mousa’s death. And anyway, it’s now far too late to right all the wrongs we have done in Iraq. Just don’t ask why “they” hate us.