The scrutiny of the police over the Stephen Lawrence murder is absent from the military’s inquiry into Baha Mousa’s death
Last April marked 20 years since the murder of Stephen Lawrence. The black teenager was killed on a London street by a gang of white youths in 1993. A prosecution failed for lack of evidence, and a public inquiry concluded that there were deep-set problems of institutional racism within the Metropolitan police.
On Sunday 15 September there will be another anniversary. It will be 10 years to the day since Baha Mousa was killed by British troops in Basra. Mousa was a hotel receptionist arrested with nine other Iraqi civilians in 2003 by members of 1st Battalion, the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment. Thirty-six hours later he was dead, beaten to death after being subjected to hooding, sleep deprivation, stress positions and interrogation. Much of the treatment and that of the other detainees amounted to a war crime.
Worries that British forces had lost their moral compass and were incapable of prosecuting their own were expressed by high-ranking officers and politicians. But a court martial failed to convict anyone for Baha Mousa’s death. Only after a public inquiry completed its work seven years later were the perpetrators revealed.
There are many similarities between these two killings and the official responses. But whereas some lessons have been learned from the Lawrence affair and some justice has been seen to be done – last year two men were convicted of his murder – there are few such gains in the Mousa case.
The Lawrence case caused a sea change in institutional thinking. The Independent Police Complaints Commission was established in 2004, when it was deemed essential that the police should not be left to investigate their own inadequacies and misconduct.
In the Mousa case, this year the high court considered the complaints of hundreds of Iraqis about their detention or treatment by the British army during the occupation of Basra. Baha Mousa was one of the many systemic abuse cases identified and referred to the Iraq Historic Allegations Team (Ihat) – set up by the Ministry of Defence and manned by members of the armed forces.
However, no prosecutions have followed. And despite a litany of wrongdoing identified in the Mousa public inquiry led by Sir William Gage, no one has been brought to trial. Even the high court has had to accept that it is “highly unlikely that there will be any criminal trials for those responsible”, and it lamented the likely “closing of ranks” and destruction of forensic evidence.
This also applied to many other Iraqis who died at the hands of British troops. More than 160 other deaths were revealed as causing concern, some occurring in custody, others on the street or in their homes. Not one has resulted in a successful prosecution.