British soldier admits he is war criminal after Iraq death

Key quote "We are not dealing with the actions of a soldier or soldiers in the heat of the moment whilst on patrol in a hostile environment." - Julian Bevan QC

Story in full A SOLDIER yesterday became the first member of the British armed forces to admit to a war crime, as he pleaded guilty to inhumanely treating civilians in Iraq.

Corporal Donald Payne is one of seven soldiers charged over the death in custody of Baha Musa, 26, and the ill-treatment of other detainees in Basra three years ago.

Prosecutors allege that Iraqis held at a temporary detention facility were repeatedly beaten, kicked and punched whilst handcuffed and hooded during a 36-hour period in September 2003.

They were allegedly made to maintain a stress position for unacceptable lengths of time, deprived of sleep, continually shouted at and "generally abused in temperatures rising to almost 60C".

The court martial hearing was told that a post-mortem on Musa's body found 93 injuries including fractured ribs and a broken nose.

Julian Bevan QC, prosecuting said that Musa, a hotel receptionist, had removed his handcuffs before he died and 35-year-old Payne suspected the Iraqi was trying to escape, a fear which led the corporal to take "certain measures".

Mr Bevan said that despite Cpl Payne's admission of inhumane treatment, "his behaviour went some way beyond what he admits".

Following Mr Musa's death, Payne attempted to pervert the course of justice by telling those who had witnessed him beating Mr Musa not to speak about it, the court was told.

Cpl Payne denies manslaughter and perverting the course of justice.

Two other defendants, Lance Corporal Wayne Crowcroft and Private Darren Fallon, deny a charge of inhumane treatment while Sergeant Kelvin Stacey denies assault occasioning actual bodily harm. Three officers - Major Michael Peebles, Warrant Officer Mark Davies and Colonel Jorge Mendonca - are accused of negligently performing a duty, a charge they all deny.

In one incident, a detainee suffered such serious kidney injuries that it resulted in renal failure, which could have killed him but for medical intervention, the QC said. In another case, an Iraqi detainee also suffered serious kidney problems which were later found to be caused by injuries consistent with being punched and kicked.

Mr Bevan said: "We are not dealing in this case with robust or rough handling, which is bound to happen in the theatre that existed in Iraq, but something far more serious.

"We are not dealing with the actions of a soldier or soldiers in the heat of the moment whilst on patrol in a hostile environment.

"We are dealing with systematic abuse against prisoners involving unacceptable violence against persons who were detained in custody, hooded and cuffed and wholly unable to protect themselves over a very long period of time."

The QC accused Payne of being mainly responsible for the abuse, which included tweaking of nipples, punching and forcing the detainees to drink urine.

Mr Bevan said the "sheer openness" with which the detainees were inhumanely treated indicated there was a failure of more senior officers in their duty to protect their prisoners, who were being questioned to see if they should be held on the basis that they posed a threat to the coalition forces.

The Iraqi detainees were arrested following a raid carried out by British soldiers on a number of hotels after the army received intelligence the buildings were being used as bases for insurgents and members of the "Former Regime Extremists".

Most of the Iraqis to whom the charges relate were taken from the Haitham Hotel. Inside that hotel, soldiers found rifles, grenades, bayonets, a sniper scope and also timers which they suspected to be proof of bomb-making activity.

These finds "understandably led to the arrest" of the hotel management, the court martial was told, providing as it did a "solid ground for the suspicion that they were involved in insurgency activities and posed a threat to the commanding forces".

"The belief that those in custody were a significant threat undoubtedly fuelled the way in which they were treated," Mr Bevan added.

The court heard that the men were eventually released without charge over the coming months.

Three further suspects were arrested later that day at their homes and taken to the detention facility where they joined the other detainees.

Mr Bevan said that they were held for some time in the lavatory and water was flushed from the lavatories deliberately so that it splattered their clothing. This, he said, was considered a great insult in Iraq.

The detainees were handcuffed, put on a truck and taken to the detention facility which is around 60 yards from the main operational and accommodation quarters for the Queen's Lancashire Regiment.

The opening of yesterday's hearing at the Military Court Centre at Bulford Camp on Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire, marks the first time that British servicemen have been prosecuted for war crimes under the International Criminal Court Act (ICCA) 2001.

Three of the men, including Cpl Payne, are charged with inhumane treatment, established as a war crime under ICCA.

In pre-trial hearings, Judge Stuart McKinnon ruled that no pictures or images of the accused or details of their home addresses or locations may be published for fear of revenge attacks on themselves or their families.

The high-profile trial, which resumes today, is expected to last up to four months.

Seven on trial - and the charges

• Corporal Donald Payne, aged 35, admits inhumanely treating civilians but denies manslaughter and perverting the course of justice.

• Lance Corporal Wayne Crowcroft, 22, denies a charge of inhumane treatment.

• Private Darren Fallon, 23, denies a charge of inhumane treatment.

• Sergeant Kelvin Stacey, 29, denies assault occasioning actual bodily harm with an alternative count of common assault.

• Major Michael Peebles, 35, denies negligently performing a duty Warrant Officer Mark Davies, 37, denies negligently performing a duty.

• Colonel Jorge Mendonca, 42, denies negligently performing a duty.

The charges against Peebles, Davies and Mendonca relate to their alleged failure to take reasonable steps to ensure that military personnel under their control did not ill-treat Iraqi civilians being detained.