Tactical Questioning: Scenes from the Baha Mousa Enquiry

A review of Tricycle Theatre's dramatisation of the public inquiry into the death of Baha Mousa, an innocent Iraqi citizen, at the hands of the British military

The greatest tragedy that emerges from Tricycle Theatre’s shocking, moving and powerful production of Richard Norton-Taylor’s Tactical Questioning is the overwhelming awareness that the wrong people are being forced to take the blame. 

For just short of two hours we watch men from the lowest private to the Minister of State for the Armed Forces face questioning about the brutal death of Baha Mousa, an entirely innocent Iraqi victim. The frankness of the answers is in inverse ratio to the power of the witnesses. The upshot of the incident, in September 2003, was this: Mousa, 26, hotel receptionist — dead. Donald Payne — corporal, jailed for one year after admitting inhumane treatment. Everybody else, including the Minister of State, the Right Honourable Adam Ingram, MP — nothing.

Payne, played with almost frightening aggression and directness by Dean Ashton, is the most startling element of the whole, grim story. The expectation, as he is led deeper and deeper into self-incrimination by Gerard Elias, QC, is that he will lie. 

The official line is that Britain does not do torture. Calmly and with great precision, this edited verbatim account of the public inquiry which is due to finally publish its findings later this year, shows that we do.

Corporal Payne, without ever being asked to define the word, leaves the inquiry in no doubt. He describes how Baha Mousa was forced into stress positions, was screamed and shouted at, plasticuffed by fingers and thumbs as well as wrists, forced to lie face downwards on the floor with his chin in his hands, subjected, as were other detainees, to “forceful” kicks and punches “designed to hurt.”

Mousa was in detention for 36 hours, hooded with a sandbag for more than 23 of them. After his death – from asphyxiation – he was found to have more than 90 injuries, including broken ribs and nose. As Payne and other soldiers repeated, the noise the detainees made, and the noise the soldiers made in screaming and shouting as part of the “conditioning” process, could be heard from a long way outside the temporary detention facility where the “tactical questioning” of the “suspects” took place.

But who was listening? Or paying attention at all? The strange apparent blindness and deafness of authority is the question Norton-Taylor’s latest “tribunal play” for the Tricycle poses time and time again. Colonel Jorge Mendonca, the commanding officer, was “unaware of screaming or unusual noise during the night” that Mousa died. The padre, Father Peter Madden, failed to recognise some of the stances adopted by the prisoners as (illegal) stress positions. Indeed, he “would often see Iraqi locals crouching down by the roadsides.”

Payne’s aggressive truth-telling was not matched by any of his superiors. Lieutenant Craig Rodgers seemed to have a particularly severe attack of the Three Wise Monkey syndrome. He could not remember what Corporal Payne briefed him about the detainees, he only “thought” he saw the detainees in the room where they were mistreated, he could not recall if they were in stress positions, and he could not remember if they were making any noise. He did admit that conditions in the room were hot and smelly, but when asked by Mr Elias what the smell was, replied “Just sweat and dirty bodies, sir.” The word the others used was excrement. The detainees were swimming in it.

Despite the obvious and perennial problems in the military of fear of reprisal and group loyalty, Private Aaron Cooper did affirm, under questioning, that he and several other men, including Lieutenant Rodgers, had punched the detainees. The reason that everybody had become so “pumped up” he said, was because one of their officers, Captain Dai Jones, had been attacked and killed while in a marked ambulance. After Baha Mausa’s death, however, Corporal Payne suggested that the story should be that Mausa died accidentally, by banging his head against a wall.

ELIAS QC: Why did you go along with it?

COOPER: Obviously you are in the British Army, you all work as a team and try to stick as a team. Then there was a conversation. Lieutenant Rodgers…wanted to try and protect us and himself from anybody finding out about the treatment, the way that we treated them. So his suggestion was that all the blame be put on to Corporal Payne…Mr Rodgers did not want anybody to find out the way that we had treated the detainees.

Rodgers himself, a little later, gave the QC chapter and verse as to why Corporal Payne could be seen as different from the normal soldier. 

ELIAS: Did he have any reputation?

RODGERS: He was a provost corporal, sir. All provost staff have a reputation as being tough and hard line….they enforce the policy of the regimental sergeant major for discipline.

Adrian Redfearn, a lance corporal and not on the provost staff, told the inquiry that it had been apparent for some time that something terrible was likely to happen at the camp, possibly with someone going to die.

ELIAS: Didn’t you feel impelled to tell somebody in higher authority that something needed to be done?

REFEARN: As far as I was aware, sir, everybody in higher authority already knew what was going on, sir.

ELIAS: You had that, you say, from Mr Rodgers?

REDFEARN: And the fact that higher-ranking officers had been in there and also the fact that the ops room was ten metres away, sir. 

By the time the inquiry got to the evidence of Major Michael Peebles, the perception of the treatment meted out in the facility had changed a little. As well as neither seeing nor hearing Corporal Payne “unlawfully kicking and punching detainees,” he found the treatment of one “particularly young” detainee – which the theatre audience clearly perceived as torture – to be “a sort of naughty schoolboy routine.”

Found to be “fairly non-responsive” to questioning, the young detainee was placed next to a hot and noisy generator outside the room, plasticuffed, hooded, and under guard, then brought back for more questioning, then led out again. The ambient temperature, even without the diesel generator, was sometimes 50 Celsius or more. The QC tried several times, surprisingly gently, to get Peebles to admit this treatment might have been “a punishment for him.” It was not, Peebles insisted: “It was convenient.”

One officer who did allow his distaste and anger to show was Lieutenant Colonel Nicholas Mercer, the army’s senior legal officer in Iraq, who said he had earlier walked out of an International Red Cross meeting because the government had forbidden him to speak on the subject of detainee mistreatment and hooding, which he knew was illegal in the terms of the European Human Rights Act and Geneva Conventions. 

Asked by Elias if he thought the Baha Mousa tragedy had been avoidable, he replied: “I think if we had had a proper reviewing process in place, I think if we had had a judge in theatre, as we requested, with a detainee/internee management unit, if we had had an independent team for prisoners and I think if there wasn’t this constant reluctance to accept high legal standards, then I think we could have avoided this tragedy.” 

By the time we got to Minister of State Adam Ingram, though, all hope of intellectual rigour and seeking for the truth crashed into the pit of pride and politics. The audience were torn between laughter, horror, even tears as he squirmed to avoid any sort of damaging admission. Truly, the three wise monkeys lived. But should we be surprised? After a six-month court martial that ended in 2007, Corporal Payne got one year’s jail, six other soldiers were cleared of abuse, and Colonel Mendonca of negligence. The presiding judge spoke of a “wall of silence.” 

As Norton-Taylor points out in his “overview” published with the play, the court martial which convicted just one man was not the end of the story, and the final report of Sir William Gage’s inquiry is expected before the end of this year. In March, 2008, the Ministry of Defence agreed to pay £2.83m compensation to Baha Mousa’s family and the nine surviving detainees held with him.

On a personal note, many of the critics of my book The Skinback Fusiliers, serialised here on OurKingdom, insisted it portrayed British soldiers in ways that were unfair, unpleasant, and untrue. I would exhort not only them but everybody to see this play. 

Until July 2nd. Tickets: 020 7328 1000.