Page last updated at 19:43 GMT, Monday, 15 February 2010

Ex-officer Mendonca denies knowledge of Iraqi abuse

Baha Mousa and his family
Baha Mousa's body was found to have suffered 93 injuries

A former Army officer has told the inquiry into the death of Iraqi Baha Mousa he knew nothing about alleged abuse of Iraqi detainees by his men.

Col Jorge Mendonca said officers may have kept him "out of the loop" as he had a reputation for proper conduct.

But he said he accepted responsibility for the death of Mr Mousa while held in UK military custody in Basra in 2003.

Col Mendonca was cleared of all charges relating to the case in 2007 but left the Army in anger at his treatment.

Court martial

Col Mendonca said: "We were there to help the people of Basra.

Whilst what you have shown to me [during the inquiry] is shocking and disappointing and a deeply embarrassing situation, it is not representative of the 1QLR on that operation
Col Jorge Mendonca

"That was the approach we were taking to the Iraqis."

When asked at the inquiry as to whether, with hindsight, it now seemed to him that things were not as they ought to have been, Col Mendonca said: "There may well have been things going on that I was unaware of, but my general impression of the tour was that the soldiers did an extremely good job and carried out my intent."

Asked whether he was ultimately accountable for Mr Mousa's death, he said he accepted responsibility "as the commanding officer of that unit".

But he added: "I don't think I could have done better on that tour, I don't think I could have worked harder or thought more carefully about the priorities which presented themselves to me."

AT THE SCENE
Caroline Hawley
Caroline Hawley,
BBC News

Col Mendonca's evidence has been eagerly awaited. It is three years since a court martial cleared him of negligence for failing to ensure Iraqi detainees were not mistreated by his men.

The former soldier, who was made an MBE before he went to Iraq, had been awarded a Distinguished Service Order for his leadership of 1st Battalion the Queen's Lancashire Regiment in Basra.

But the death of Baha Mousa - on his watch - was a stain on the record of the entire British military in Iraq, not just his regiment. Col Mendonca left the Army in 2007, concerned he might face further disciplinary proceedings.

He appeared before the inquiry as a civilian still fighting for his reputation, and his defence of himself was robust, at times combative.

He denied any "culture of casual violence" in his regiment, insisting he had neither witnessed, nor known of, anything untoward.

He strongly denied a claim by a previous witness that he punched an Iraqi prisoner in front of more than 100 troops.

The inquiry had earlier heard allegations that Col Mendonca was "trigger happy".

Col Mendonca was commanding officer of Preston-based 1st Battalion the Queen's Lancashire Regiment (1QLR) at the time of the alleged abuse in Basra, southern Iraq.

Earlier on Monday, as questions were put to him about other incidents of both alleged and admitted violence against Iraqi detainees, Col Mendonca said he had not been aware of these incidents.

"If soldiers [had been] beating up Iraqis around the city, I am sure I would have come across it.

"Whilst what you have shown to me [during the inquiry] is shocking and disappointing and a deeply embarrassing situation, it is not representative of the 1QLR on that operation. It is a slice of what went on clearly, but it is not representative of the whole battalion."

He said what the inquiry did now show was the "thousands upon thousands" of reports of good patrolling that was going on in Basra at the time.

And he said there was "no truth" in claims by another witness that he was "gung ho" and pistol-toting.

'I was disgusted'

Mr Mousa, a hotel receptionist and father-of-two, was found dead with 93 separate injuries after being held in the custody of the Queen's Lancashire Regiment.

Only one soldier, former corporal Donald Payne, has been convicted in connection with his death - he pleaded guilty at a court martial to inhumanely treating civilians.

However, no-one has ever been punished for causing Mr Mousa's death.

The inquiry also heard details of other occasions when members of 1QLR allegedly assaulted or abused Iraqi detainees.

BAHA MOUSA TIMELINE
September 2003: Iraqi hotel worker Baha Mousa, 26, dies in British custody in Basra, having been detained along with nine other Iraqis. He was wrongly suspected of being an insurgent
September 2006: At a court martial, six soldiers from the Queen's Lancashire Regiment (QLR) deny charges relating to Mr Mousa's death, but Cpl Donald Payne, also of the QLR, admits inhumanely treating Iraqi civilians
March 2007: The six-month long hearing ends with the acquittal of the six soldiers
April 2007: Cpl Payne becomes the country's first convicted war criminal as he is jailed for a year and dismissed from the Army
March 2008: The Ministry of Defence (MoD) admits breaching Mr Mousa's human rights
May 2008: The UK government announces a public inquiry
July 2008: The MoD agrees to pay out £2.83m, divided between Mr Mousa's family, eight Iraqi men mistreated by British troops, and the brother of a 10th man who was mistreated but later died in an unrelated incident
July 2009: The public inquiry into Mr Mousa's death opens

The incidents reported by other witnesses included British troops being told to hit prisoners being transported in the back of armoured vehicles if they tried to talk; a 12-year-old boy being kicked in the head for throwing a stone at British soldiers; an officer telling junior soldiers to beat up detainees; an Iraqi prisoner being left with a broken wrist and concussion after being assaulted by British troops; and a sergeant boasting that he had kicked a suspected Iraqi thief in the throat.

Col Mendonca, who was commanding officer of 1QLR at the time, told the inquiry he was not informed about any of these incidents.

Payne previously told the inquiry of an incident where he says Col Mendonca cocked his pistol, held it above a prisoner's mouth and threatened to "blow his face off".

Payne claimed Col Mendonca would "pull his pistol out at any opportunity".

Another former member of 1QLR, identified only as S038, has also alleged that he saw Col Mendonca punch an Iraqi prisoner in the side of the face.

He told the inquiry: "I was disgusted. A CO (commanding officer) is supposed to lead by example."

Payne was dismissed from the Army and sentenced to one year in a civilian jail after pleading guilty to the war crime of inhumane treatment in September 2006.

The other six soldiers who faced the court martial, including Col Mendonca, were cleared on all counts in 2007.

Col Mendonca also defended the use of hooding and conditioning on Iraqi detainees, saying he did not think they were inhumane, despite being banned by the UK government.

But he said he would have not have allowed suspects to stand in painful "stress positions" if he had known it was happening.

He is the most senior British officer to face a court martial in recent history, and left the Army after the proceedings, saying he had been "hung out to dry" and made to feel like a "common criminal" by his commanders.

The Ministry of Defence agreed in July 2008 to pay £2.83m in compensation to the families of Mr Mousa and nine other Iraqi men mistreated by British troops.

The inquiry continues.



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