Judge orders charges dropped against five UK soldiers accused of Iraqi abuses
THE highest-ranking British serviceman in recent history to face a court martial was yesterday cleared of mistreating Iraqi civilians.
Colonel Jorge Mendonca, MBE, 43, the former commander of the Queen's Lancashire Regiment, had been standing trial for five months for negligently performing a duty. But a judge yesterday ruled that there was no case to answer, as charges against Col Mendonca and four of his men were abandoned.
It came on the 80th day of the trial, which army sources say will cost the taxpayer over 20 million. Col Mendonca had been accused of failing to ensure his men did not mistreat Iraqi civilians detained in Basra in September 2003.
It was alleged that some of the colonel's men abused the Iraqis, keeping them hooded, cuffed and deprived of sleep, and beating them for failing to hold stress positions over a 36-hour period - pre-interrogation "conditioning", which is banned under international law. One of the prisoners, Baha Musa, 26, a hotel receptionist, died.
The prosecution had alleged that Col Mendonca did not do everything possible to ensure the detainees, arrested as suspected insurgents, were treated according to the Geneva Convention and the Laws of Armed Conflict.
But Mr Justice McKinnon, sitting as judge advocate, ordered the colonel's acquittal after "no case to answer" submissions were made by his defence team at the end of the prosecution's case. Four of his six co-defendants were also cleared following similar applications. Two men remain on trial at Bulford Camp in Wiltshire.
Although the judge's decisions can be reported, his reasons for making them cannot be published until after the conclusion of the trial, for legal reasons.
Speaking after leaving court, Col Mendonca said it was a privilege to have been a commander. He said: "I remain convinced that Queen's Lancashire did enormous good in the city of Basra in 2003 and every one of my soldiers and officers worked extremely hard under indescribably difficult conditions to make Basra a better place, and I just hope that fact is not forgotten in the aftermath of this trial.
"For 25 years, I have served my country and done my best. The last three years have been difficult, but it is my family that has borne the brunt of it."
Sergeant Kelvin Stacey, 30, was formally acquitted on the judge's request by the panel, the military equivalent of a jury, of assault occasioning actual bodily harm and common assault.
Lance Corporal Wayne Crowcroft, 22, and Private Darren Fallon, 23, were both cleared of treating Iraqis inhumanely - a charge brought, for the first time against British servicemen, under the International Criminal Court Act 2001.
Corporal Donald Payne became Britain's first convicted war criminal when, at the start of the trial in September, he admitted treating the detainees inhumanely.
Payne was cleared yesterday on the judge's orders of Mr Musa's manslaughter and a further charge of perverting the course of justice. But the judge dismissed "no case" applications made by two of other soldiers.
Major Michael Peebles, 35, and Warrant Officer Mark Davies, 37, both of the Intelligence Corps, remain on trial. Both deny negligently performing the duty of ensuring the Iraqis were not ill-treated by men under their command.
A senior source close to the QLR last night attacked the decision to prosecute the men, adding: "This trial has cost the taxpayer in excess of 20 million. That money could have bought a complete set of state-of-the-art body armour for all the 15,500 troops currently on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan."
A spokesman for the Ministry of Defence said that the court martial was brought following a thorough investigation into allegations of abuse. He said: "All substantives, allegations of abuse are thoroughly investigated. Where evidence is found to support prosecutions, as in this case, those involved will face appropriate action."
A spokesman for the Attorney General's office said the prosecution had not been influenced by political pressure - a denial made publicly prior to the start of the trial in September last year.
But Liam Fox, the shadow defence secretary, said the case raised questions as to whether charges should have been brought at all against Col Mendonca and the other four soldiers. He said: "The whole affair has resulted in enormous expense to the taxpayer and unnecessary damage to the reputation of the British Army.
"Those responsible for bringing these charges need an urgent reappraisal of their procedures and perhaps even their motives. A whiff of political correctness hangs heavy over the case against Colonel Mendonca, with law officers determined to have military officers prosecuted."
The trial was adjourned until Monday.
• BEFORE his court martial, Colonel Jorge Mendonca MBE, the decorated former commander of the Queen's Lancashire Regiment, was widely considered to be destined for the very top of the army.
Fellow officers speak of his exemplary leadership of the QLR during its extremely difficult tour to win "hearts and minds" in Basra following the Coalition Forces' invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The 43-year-old infantry commander's attention to detail and his gallantry in the Gulf, for which he won a DSO (Distinguished Service Order), won him plaudits both in the ranks and the officers' mess.
His universally-recognised calibre made it all the more shocking when military prosecutors later decided to try him for a charge related to an incident in which a suspected Iraqi insurgent died in Basra in the custody of his men in September 2003.
Many considered Col Mendonca's inclusion in the list of seven QLR soldiers to be tried as a UK government bid to appease Iraqi public opinion.
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