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Soldiers cleared in Iraq death trial

Reuters | March 13, 2007

The last two of seven soldiers were cleared over the death of an Iraqi prisoner on Tuesday at the end of a six-month trial that raised questions about whether senior commanders sanctioned abuse.

The trial over the death of hotel receptionist Baha Musa was the last, longest and costliest of three courts martial of soldiers over the deaths of Iraqis in custody, all of which failed to secure convictions.

One soldier pleaded guilty to a single charge at the start of the latest case before all the charges that were subject to trial were thrown out. The panel acquitted the final two soldiers of neglect of duty on Tuesday.

Lawyers representing soldiers and victims attacked the handling of the case.

"The outcome is a travesty. It gives the victims nothing," said Phil Shiner, who represents victims. "It may be too late now to find out who really killed Baha Musa. It is not too late to learn the lessons from this incident."

Gilbert Blades, who represented one of the accused, said the case should never have reached trial after one soldier pleaded guilty, and blamed the government for pushing for it.

"They've come unstuck every time they've dealt with this sort of case," he said.

Two earlier courts martial in separate cases of prisoners' deaths also collapsed without convictions after running for months and costing millions of pounds.

Musa, a 26-year-old father of two, died in British custody in September 2003 after receiving 93 separate injuries as one of a group of 10 Iraqis subjected to two days of fierce beatings.

Surviving victims said they could not identify their attackers because they were kept hooded during the abuse.

Corporal Donald Payne, who was restraining Musa when he died, pleaded guilty to abusing prisoners under a new war crimes law, becoming Britain's first war criminal.

Judge Stuart McKinnon threw out a manslaughter charge against Payne and all charges against four others, including commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel Jorge Mendonca, the most senior officer to face a court martial in modern times.

On Tuesday the panel cleared the final two defendants, Major Michael Peebles and Warrant Officer Mark Davies, of neglecting their duties.


The judge said there was no evidence the soldiers being prosecuted were actually those who administered the beatings. He blamed a "more or less obvious closing of the ranks" for the failure of the guilty to be identified.

McKinnon also said he had thrown out the case against Mendonca because evidence showed that the headquarters above him had approved the illegal abuse.

Prisoners were kept in "stress positions" and hooded for long periods to "condition" them for interrogations, practices which Britain considers illegal.

"It is now effectively common ground that brigade did indeed sanction the use of hooding and stress positions," McKinnon said. "That obviously contributed to the favourable result for Colonel Mendonca."

The Ministry of Defence said in a statement it would examine the "serious implications" of the trial and learn any necessary lessons. A spokesman declined to comment on the allegation that commanders had approved the abuse.



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