07 Jan 2004 12:55


By Andrew Cawthorne

LONDON (Reuters) - London said on Wednesday it had paid compensation to families of three Iraqi civilians who died in incidents involving occupying British soldiers, including one whose relatives said he was tortured to death in custody.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) declined to give case details, but the payouts were widely believed to amount to thousands of pounds (dollars).

"A compensation payment has been made for the deceased, Mr (Baha) Mousa," a Ministry spokesman said. "This doesn't represent an admission of guilt or responsibility from any soldier. An investigation is under way."

The MoD said that since the formal end of hostilities on May 1, Iraqis had submitted 23 claims for compensation "in connection with alleged fatalities involving UK forces".

Of those, seven have been rejected, 13 were still under investigation and three have received compensation, it said.

"We take our legal obligations very seriously," the spokesman added. "But I would stress that where we've made a payment, it doesn't amount to an admission of guilt."

Baha Mousa, 26, died in British custody in September after soldiers arrested him and seven other young Iraqis in the southern city of Basra. His body was returned to his family four days later battered and caked with blood.

Mousa's nose and wrist were broken and bruises covered his body, his father Dawood told Reuters in October. Dawood said he believed Mousa, a hotel receptionist and father-of-two, had been tortured to death.

The MoD said a military police unit not linked to the soldiers' regiment was investigating the case.

Another Iraqi arrested at the same time, 44-year-old Kefa Taha, was later admitted to hospital with renal failure and severe bruising to his upper abdomen and the right side of his chest, according to British army hospital records in Basra.

Britain was Washington's chief ally in the March invasion to oust former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, and has more than 10,000 troops there, mainly in the south.

An Anglo-American campaign group, the Iraq Body Count (IBC), said the payments were "better than a kick in the teeth" but lambasted the compensation policy as unsatisfactory.

"Both America and Britain are circumscribing very narrowly the conditions under which they would even consider conditions for compensation. Basically, it boils down to negligence and malpractice as defined by them," said the IBC's John Sloboda.

The IBC said the British post-May 1 compensation payments -- coupled with far more payouts by the U.S. military -- were welcome, but diverted attention from those killed in the war.

"It's good that there is some money flowing, but the major issue is what's going to happen about the 7,500 civilians killed during the war?" he said. "So far, nothing."