LONDON – Five British soldiers accused of mistreating Iraqi civilian detainees had charges against them dropped on Wednesday, leading the highest-ranking defendant to say he is proud of the good work that he and his men did in Basra.
But the judge in the court-martial also ruled that the trial would continue against two other servicemen accused of negligently performing their duties.
The trial, now in its 80th day on a British army base, has tarnished the image of Britain's military with accusations of war crimes because one of the defendants, Cpl. Donald Payne, 35, pleaded guilty to the charge of inhumanely treating the Iraqi civilians, making him the first British soldier to plead guilty to awar crime under international law.
The nine Iraqi detainees — taken into custody as alleged insurgents — allegedly were handcuffed, hooded, beaten, held in stress positions and deprived of sleep for about two days in extreme heat at a British army barracks near the southern Iraqi city of Basra in September 2003.
The prosecution said Iraqi Baha Mousa, a 26-year-old hotel worker, tried to escape because he was being beaten unlawfully and died after being restrained by soldiers. The eight other Iraqi detainees were released without charge.
Justice Stuart McKinnon ruled that two other charges against Payne — manslaughter and perverting the course of justice — should be dismissed, along with the charge of inhumanely treating detainees against two of Payne's co-defendants — Lance Cpl. Wayne Ashley Crowcroft, 22, and Pvt. Darren Trevor Fallon, 23.
The judge also dismissed a common assault charge against Sgt. Kelvin Lee Stacey, 30, and a charge of negligently performing duties against Col. Jorge Emmanuel Mendonca, 43.
McKinnon said the court-martial at the Bulford Camp army base, 85 miles southwest of London, would continue against Warrant Officer Mark Lester Davies, 37, and Maj. Michael Edwin Peebles, 35, on the charge of negligently performing their duties.
The judge first read his decision Tuesday but ordered the verdict not be reported until he gave it Wednesday to a board of military officers acting as a jury.
Some details of the ruling were being withheld to avoid prejudicing the jury for the remainder of the trial against Davies and Peebles. It is scheduled to resume Monday.
Instructing the jury to acquit Payne, Fallon, Crowcroft, Stacey and Mendonca, the judge said: "Basically the reason is that there is no evidence fit to go to you, the board, which would justify you in convicting any of these defendants on these charges."
McKinnon said his decision to allow the court-martial to continue against Peebles and Davies "does not go against them. All I have decided is that there is a case for them to answer."
Mendonca, the highest-ranking defendant, said he hoped Wednesday's ruling would clear the names of him and his men.
"Three-and-a-half years ago I had the privilege of commanding a superb battalion in Iraq," he told reporters. "All of my men and officers worked indescribably hard to make Basra a better place. I just hope that fact isn't forgotten."
Prosecutor Julian Bevan told the court that the defendants suspected the Iraqi detainees had been involved in the killing of six British military police officers in August 2003 and the death of a soldier in the bombing of a military ambulance in Basra.
Iraqi Ahmad Taha Musa al-Matairi, the only detainee to testify at the court-martial, said the defendants laughed as they beat one of the detainees in a sweltering detention facility and took bets on which soldier could knock him down first.
Al-Matairi testified he was detained because he was part-owner of a hotel suspected of being an insurgent base. Soldiers found rifles, ammunition, grenades and timers they believed were to be used for bomb-making equipment in a search of several hotels. They also found forged identity documents and large amounts of money.