Global Policy Forum

Human Rights Law Applies in


By Matthew Weaver

June 13, 2007

The House of Lords today delivered a resounding blow to British conduct in the war in Iraq by ruling that human rights law applies in the case of an Iraqi civilian who died in UK custody after alleged torture. The law lords decided that the UK was obliged to conduct an independent investigation into the death of Baha Mousa, who died after sustaining 93 separate injuries in Basra in 2003.

In a four-to-one verdict, the lords ruled that the UK's obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights applied to the conduct of British troops in Iraq. They upheld a court of appeal ruling of December 2005 that the UK authorities had "extra-territorial jurisdiction" concerning Mr Mousa, a 26-year-old hotel worker. But the families of five other Iraqi civilians killed in different incidents in Basra, but who were not in detention, were told their cases were not covered by UK human rights law. The families will now take their cases to the European courts.

Lawyers for Mr Mousa's family and civil rights campaigners said a full inquiry should now be conducted into the circumstances of his death. Before the hearing they released pictures and records detailing the 93 separate injuries to Mr Mousa, including a fractured nose, four broken ribs and a ligature mark around his neck. They dismissed suggestions that a full investigation had already been conducted at a court martial hearing into whether seven soldiers had abused Mr Mousa and others. Six of the men were cleared of all charges.

Today's ruling means that anyone held in custody abroad by the British Army, will be protected by the Human Rights Act. As such they will have a right to life, a right not to be tortured and the right to access to a fair trial. The ruling therefore strengthens Mr Mousa's family case for compensation against the British Army. It also means where a death in custody occurs, a public inquiry will have to be held. But it is unclear whether the government is obliged by the Lords' ruling to hold an inquiry in Mr Mousa's death, because the court martial may be deemed sufficient.

The director of Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, hailed today's ruling as a "landmark decision". She said: "Our law lords have today ensured that there can never be a British Guantanamo Bay. The British will never be able to build a prison anywhere in the world and say it is a legal black hole. "As a result of this landmark decision the Human Rights Act protects anyone detained by the British government." She said ministers and military officials should now be held to account for the death of Mr Mousa. "Individual soldiers cannot be ... scapegoated for the failures of the British government and the military high command. It is too easy to blame it on a few rotten apples." She added: "This decision means there must be a full, independent and public inquiry into how this scandal occurred."

Phil Shiner, the lawyer representing Mr Mousa's family, said Mr Mousa and others had been "hooded, stressed and sleep deprived" - practices all outlawed by the government of Edward Heath in 1972. "How is it that at the highest level - even after Mousa had died - there was ignorance of the fact of the 1972 ban?" he asked.

Martyn Day, the personal injury lawyer for Colonel Mousa, Baha's father, said: "The British army will now always be held to account for their actions when people are bought under power. There will be no difference whether this happens in Birmingham or Basra." He also issued a statement from Colonel Mousa who said: "I hope that, as result of this judgement, the truth will come out and that no other family should have to experience what me and my grandchildren have gone through."

More Information on Iraq
More Information on International Law Aspects of the Iraq War and Occupation
More Information on Torture and Prison Abuse in Iraq
More Information on Occupation and Rule in Iraq


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