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Britain's highest court upholds detainee rights

The ruling in the case involving the death of an Iraqi recognizes that those in British custody anywhere are protected.

June 14, 2007|Alicia Lozano | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — Britain's highest court sent a stern message to the country's military Wednesday, ruling that detainees held in British facilities throughout the world are protected under both the European Convention on Human Rights and British laws.

The Law Lords upheld an appeal by the father of Baha Mousa, a 26-year-old detainee in Iraq who died in British custody. Mousa sustained 93 injuries, including broken ribs and a broken nose, lawyers for his family said.

But the Law Lords, the nation's highest judicial authority, dismissed the cases of five other Iraqi civilians killed by British troops because the deaths occurred in the streets of Basra and not on British-owned or occupied territory. Lawyers for the five families said they would take their cases to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.

Human rights activists applauded the Mousa ruling, saying the government must be held accountable for conditions for its detainees not just on British soil but also throughout the world.

Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty, a human rights organization that helped bring the case to court, said at a news conference: "There could now never be a British Guantanamo. The British will never be able to build a prison anywhere in the world and say it is a legal black hole."

Although there is no immediate impact from the ruling outside Mousa's case, human rights activists hope to use it to force government officials to clarify their policies on harsh treatment of detainees and to hold senior military leaders, not just lower-ranking jailers, accountable when standards are breached.

British troops detained Mousa in 2003 while he was working as a receptionist at a Basra hotel. He was taken to a military base where he was "brutally beaten by British troops," according to court documents.

He later died of injuries sustained during "conditioning," during which troops tortured him to make interrogation more effective, Mousa's lawyers said.

The decision by the Law Lords to recognize the rights of detainees in British custody comes after a three-year legal battle between Mousa's father, Daoud, and the British government, which appealed a lower court decision.

In 2005, the Court of Appeals ruled that Britain's Human Rights Act, established in 1998, protects people detained by British officials throughout the world. The government appealed, arguing that the Defense Ministry had accomplished its duty to take action against torture by court-martialing a soldier who pleaded guilty to the brutalization of Mousa.

"We want the public to understand that British troops have always worked under English law and the Geneva Convention, both of which make torture an offense," said Defense Ministry spokesman Nick Manning. "The court-martial was an open proceeding, and it was that investigation which led to [a] conviction." Human rights activists argue that the court-martial, which resulted in the dismissal and imprisonment of Cpl. Donald Payne, was insufficient because the military used the accused as a scapegoat and let other guilty soldiers escape punishment.

"The rulings recognize that the UK has an obligation to conduct an effective investigation set out in the European Convention," said Carla Ferstman, director of Redress, a human rights organization involved in the case. "You can't have a superfluous investigation," she said. "There is a need for those in government to investigate with a view to holding all people responsible."

Human rights groups pledged to continue investigating detainee abuse and said they would take their case back to the lower courts in hopes of conducting an independent public inquiry.

The Defense Ministry, however, says troop conduct is unlikely to change despite the decision because torture has been long banned under the European Convention on Human Rights.

"We are looking at the things we could do better," Manning said. "Steps taken today are fully compliant with UK law and the Geneva Convention."

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alicia.lozano@latimes.com

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