Socialist Worker

Prisoner deaths at the hands of British troops in Iraq

by Simon Basketter
Issue No. 2195

The Labour government lied about the deaths of Iraqis held by British troops.

At least seven Iraqi prisoners died in British custody in the first two months after the US-led invasion, leading to an investigation by the military police.

The result of that investigation has not been made public.

All we have is the names of some of the victims.

Athar Karem Ali Mowfakia and Radhi Nama both died on 8 May 2003, Abdel al-Jabbar Moussa Ali died on 17 May.

Sayeed Shabam died on 24 May. One unnamed Iraqi was killed on 12 May.

Lieutenant Colonel Nicholas Mercer was the chief legal officer for the British army in Iraq until July 2003.

It was his job to ensure that soldiers understood and obeyed international law. At almost every stage his advice was ignored.

Mercer recalled seeing one prisoner, Faisal Sadoon, held in “appalling conditions” in a container “with a barbed wire door in 40 degrees-plus of heat”.

He was told of prisoners appearing bruised and hooded at detention centres.

He recalled seeing “a generator running outside the interrogation tent, which seemed to me to create a culture of intimidation and possibly with the aim of muffling any noise”.

At the original court martial over the Baha Mousa case—at which no one was found guilty of the killing—soldiers who were involved in the beatings used the expression “I can’t remember” more than 600 times in the witness stand.

The judge spoke of a “wall of silence” from those who should have known what was going on.


In that court martial a copy of an internal army order was produced. In it Mercer wrote, “There have recently been a number of deaths in custody where Iraqi civilians have died whilst being held by various units in theatre.”

In a statement at the time the government was unequivocal. They said Mercer was referring to two deaths in army custody, and that both were investigated and found to be due to natural causes.

Evidence at the Baha Mousa inquiry shows that they were lying.

At the inquiry Mercer testified, “Sometime before 20 May [2003] I got my first report from SIB where a death in custody was reported and… was being investigated.”

He added, “On the evening of the 20 May 2003 the SIB spoke to me and informed me that they thought there were five or six more deaths which required investigation.”

It appears memory loss is as much government policy as torture is.

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Tue 30 Mar 2010, 18:50 BST
Issue No. 2195
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