THE final two British soldiers on trial over allegations of abusing Iraqi prisoners were cleared yesterday, amid claims they should never have been prosecuted.
Major Michael Peebles, 35, and Warrant Officer Mark Davies, 37, both of the Intelligence Corps, were among seven men accused of failing to prevent troops under their command from ill-treating nine suspected insurgents in Basra in 2003.
The death of Baha Musa, a hotel worker, prompted an investigation and trial estimated to have cost about 20 million.
Major Peebles and WO Davies were charged with negligently performing the duty of ensuring the Iraqis were not ill-treated by men under their command.
Last month, four of the soldiers standing trial, including Colonel Jorge Mendonca, 43, were cleared on the judge's orders due to a lack of evidence.
The prosecution alleged Iraqi detainees were beaten, hooded, deprived of sleep and made to hold stress positions over a 36-hour period.
The court heard that the rough handling of the detainees was known as "conditioning" and was meant to soften them up ahead of tactical questioning.
The Crown said such techniques were banned under the Geneva Convention and the laws of armed conflict. But the court heard the practice was authorised by top officers in the Gulf.
At the start of the six-month case, Corporal Donald Payne, 35, of the Queen's Lancashire Regiment (QLR), admitted the war crime of treating the Iraqis inhumanely. It was the first time that this charge, under the International Criminal Court Act 2001, had been brought against a British serviceman. And in pleading guilty, Payne became the British military's first-ever convicted war criminal. He is awaiting sentence.
Also charged with inhumane treatment were Lance Corporal Wayne Crowcroft, 22, and Private Darren Fallon, 23, of the QLR, but both were formally acquitted due to lack of evidence. Also ordered to be found not guilty last month was Sergeant Kelvin Stacey, 30, who stood trial for assault.
The court heard that Major Peebles was battle group internment review officer for the QLR in Basra in September 2003, when the alleged abuse took place. He was in charge of deciding if detainees should be held on a permanent basis.
His barrister, Lord Thomas of Gresford, QC, argued against the prosecution that in this role his client was not responsible for the treatment of prisoners.
Major Royce said in evidence that he was given clearance to condition detainees and that hooding and putting them in stress positions was acceptable practice.
In his summing-up of the case, the judge said of WO Davies that "there is no direct evidence he knew detainees were being ill-treated".
Gilbert Blades, solicitor for Major Peebles and a campaigner to improve the fairness of military justice, said the case highlighted the flaws of the courts-martial process.
He said: "This case illustrates the problems which became obvious during the previous trial involving seven paratroopers at Colchester accused of murdering an Iraqi; namely, the inadequacy of the investigation and the fundamental flaws in the decision to prosecute."
Phil Shiner, a solicitor for Public Interest Lawyers, currently representing the alleged victims in a civil case shortly to be heard before the House of Lords, said the verdicts were "a travesty".
He said: "It gives the victims nothing. It raises more questions than it answers."
In a statement, the Ministry of Defence said "if lessons need to be learned, we shall do so".