Thursday, July 29, 2004


Dancing like Michael Jackson: Torture as sport

A three-day High Court hearing began yesterday in London to review a decision by the Blair government not to hold a special investigation into the deaths of Iraqis in the hands of British troops. Two judges are conducting the inquiry. At issue is whether the British Human Rights Act may be applied in these cases.

Yesterday's testimony centered on the death of Baha Mousa, a receptionist at a hotel who was arrested along with a number of other hotel workers near Basra. Basra is in southern Iraq and was under the control of the British.

After Mousa's death, the British government offered the family $5,000, but the family rejected the offer. Mousa's father, a colonel in the Basra police force, said,

The crime was horrendous and his two sons, aged three and five, have been left fatherless. We were promised an investigation but we have not been told that anyone has been arrested or convicted of any crime.

The most horrendous allegations were presented by the lawyer of Kifah Taha al-Mutari, another hotel worker swept up by the British.

Mutari alleged that he and his fellow detainees were beaten on the neck, chest and genital areas, and that "Baha appeared to have much worse ill-treatment than the others". He said all the detainees were hooded, not once but twice, and "given water by it being poured over the hood so that we had to lick the droplets that seeped through the hood". "Soldiers took turns in abusing us," he added. "At night the number of soldiers increased, sometimes to eight at a time."

He also described a sadistic "names game" played by the soldiers. "Soldiers would mention some English names of stars or (football) players and request us to remember them, or we would be beaten severely," he alleged. "One terrible game the soldiers played involved kickboxing," Mutari added. "The soldiers would surround us and compete as to who could kickbox one of us the furthest. The idea was to try and make us crash into the wall." In yet another instance, he said, he and his fellow detainees were ordered by a British soldier "to dance like Michael Jackson", the American pop superstar.1

Owen Bowcott reports in the Guardian that

An independent medical report [of witness Mutari's treatment] by a British consultant, due to be presented to the court, says: "Evidence of bruising, acute renal failure and very high [enzyme] levels make it almost certain that the report history of deliberate injury was, indeed, correct."

If medical treatment had not subsequently been given, "I would have expected him to have died within a period of a few days."

According to the BBC's Jon Silverman, if the court finds that the Human Rights Act applies to the behavior of the occupation troops,

... the short-term consequence would be an obligation on the government to set up an independent inquiry to establish what happened and who was responsible.
It is likely that there would be a successful claim for monetary compensation.

And there could also be criminal prosecutions of any soldiers against whom there was sufficient evidence to place before a court.

The British Ministry of Defence is arguing that it has complied with the Geneva Conventions by conducting an investigation of five deaths, and that it was not in any case, under law, in charge.

Human rights lawyers do not regard those investigations as meeting the requirement for independence as set out in the European Convention on Human Rights.

There is another possibility, admittedly an unlikely one, that would be even more embarrassing for Britain.

If the attorney general decided not to press criminal charges, an application could be made for war crimes indictments to be issued by the International Criminal Court.

International lawyer, Khawar Qureshi, said: "With the advent of the tribunals for Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone and now the ICC, the threat of criminal punishment is acquiring increasing importance in preventing possible breaches of the Geneva Conventions as well as punishing them. This should not be underestimated."

The BBC predicts the case will ultimately end up in the House of Lords, which is the British equivalent of the U.S. Supreme Court.

And what was it that the Queen's Lancashire Regiment wanted to learn from the hotel workers? The whereabouts of the hotel's owner.


1 In a bit of irony, heading the chain of command of the British army is none other than chief of general staff General Sir Michael Jackson. Will he be made to dance? [back]

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