A Very British Killing: Looking for the Devil in the Detail

Sunday 27 October 2013

The Orwell Prize, Britain’s most prestigious prize for political writing, is supported by the Media Standards Trust, Political Quarterly, AM Heath and Richard Blair (Orwell’s son). A guest post by A.T.Williams, winner of The Orwell Prize for Books 2013 Baha Mousa was just a name at first. It appeared on a list of victims, people killed in Basra by British troops in 2003. There was little to distinguish him from the others. Except that he was the only one on the list who had been killed whilst held for interrogation in a British base. That was enough to spark my interest. Here was a man, working in a hotel as a receptionist, arrested by British soldiers looking for insurgents, taken into custody for questioning and thirty-six hours later ending up dead. There were all sorts of reasons why that may have happened. But legally, it was ‘interesting’ because being held in the middle of an Army camp he was within British jurisdiction when he died. With that came the argument that British law applied, law which included obligations under the Human Rights Act to investigate properly a death involving a state authority – in this case, the Army. But then I saw the post-mortem report and photographs of Baha Mousa. I can still feel the intense shock they provoked. They were visceral confirmation that this wasn’t just an ‘interesting’ legal case. A face distorted, almost unrecognisable, bloodied and swollen. A torso livid with huge swathes of bruising. Wrists with rings of cut flesh. A strangulation line across the throat. These were pictures of someone mauled over a protracted period of time. Seeing those photographs made me intensely angry. I could understand how troops might lose control in a battle zone. That would hardly be unusual. But these injuries were inflicted on a civilian in the heart of a British military base, and, as I discovered later, only a few yards from accommodation quarters for officers and men. How could that have happened? It was a question which drove years of panning through a mountain of information. As Mousa’s killing achieved notoriety (through the determination of Daoud Mousa, Baha’s father, not to let his son’s death go unnoticed, and Phil Shiner, the lawyer who brought the remarkable claim for judicial review in the High Court), so the legal hearings came thick and fast, each producing more detail, each uncovering layers of inaction and indifference. First, there was a farcical court martial. Seven soldiers were prosecuted for the death, the ill-treatment of nine other prisoners held with Mousa, or neglect of duty. But those soldiers who came to give evidence suddenly found themselves unable to remember what had happened; the Judge Advocate lamented the collective amnesia that had set in and had little choice but to dismiss most of the charges. Six defendants were acquitted. The seventh, Corporal Donald Payne, was only convicted because he pleaded guilty to inhuman treatment, and sentenced to 12 months in prison. No one was held responsible for Mousa’s killing or even for allowing the system of torture (for that was what it was: hooding, handcuffing, enforced stress positions, sleep deprivation, beatings) to become an institutionalised practice. Then there was a High Court review, which found that the investigation into Mousa’s death was pathetically inadequate. And after much delay, finally there was a full public inquiry; essentially a careful re-examination of all involved which produced months of transcript and hundreds of witness statements. Picking through all this documentation revealed a story of casual brutality and official unresponsiveness. And yet despite, or perhaps because of, the many legal hearings it was difficult to understand who Baha Mousa was, how he’d been killed, who had been involved, how the investigation and court martial had failed and most of all, why and how it could happen right under the noses of dozens of men and women, officers and other ranks, medic and padre included, without one of them intervening or protesting seriously until it was far too late. A Very British Killing was an attempt to make sense of all this. It became a forensic detective story of sorts. Understanding the ‘devil’ here could only become possible if the detail of the military police investigation and the legal hearings that followed was laid out comprehensibly and with precision. Hopefully that was achieved. But the shame is that ultimately it’s a detective story without resolution. Despite all the available evidence, a damning report at the end of the Baha Mousa Inquiry in 2011, and army generals queuing up to lament this ‘stain on the British Army’ still no one has been brought to book for the killing. Perhaps worse still, the unit established by the Ministry of Defence to investigate allegations of war crimes in Iraq (the Iraq Historic Allegations Team) announced in September 2013 that only now was it pursuing ‘new lines of enquiry’ into Baha Mousa’s death. Despite the mass of detail available from all the cases, reports and inquiries, despite A Very British Killing and the clear identification of all those responsible for the crime, the authorities will not act. Timed no doubt to counter any poor publicity coinciding with the 10th anniversary of Baha Mousa’s death, the statement inflicts another injustice on the family and us all. When A Very British Killing won the George Orwell Prize in May 2013, I wondered what Orwell would have thought about all this. Wouldn’t he have recognised the detachment of so many British army personnel and bureaucrats when faced with the system’s own injustice? Wouldn’t he have thought about his story of a hanging in Burma and hear again the awkward laughter of men who’ve participated, if only as witnesses, in something that is palpably wrong? Wouldn’t he have read the bureaucratic and political language of ‘lines of enquiry’ and ‘learning lessons’ and seen them as ugly and degenerate? I don’t know. But I think he would have agreed that the writing of the story of Baha Mousa’s death and the failure to address the wrong was a necessary act. I think he would have agreed that political writing fuelled by anger is still an essential response. Orwell wrote once that ‘It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects.’ His main target then was the evil of totalitarianism. But I would like to think his underlying aim was to challenge indifference to the suffering of others. That for me was the real devil which emerged amidst the detail of my book. The Orwell Prize 2014 opened for entries on the evening of 21st October for books and journalism published in 2013.