British soldiers breached the human rights of an Iraqi who died while in UK custody in Basra more than four years ago, the defence secretary, Des Browne, said today.
Baha Mousa, a hotel receptionist, suffered 93 injuries and died screaming in custody, witness statements read to the high court said.
Browne said the Ministry of Defence would also admit to violating the rights of eight other Iraqi men in September 2003 at a high court hearing due to take place on Friday.
Over the last few months, the court has heard harrowing accounts of the treatment of Iraqis by British troops in Basra.
Mousa was one of several men seized from a hotel when it was raided, and weapons were recovered, in 2003.
The men – all of whom were tortured – were detained under suspicion of being insurgents.
At times, some were hooded – a practice banned by the British government in 1972.
In a written statement, Browne said the government would admit “substantive breaches” of the parts of the European convention on human rights that protect the right to life and prohibit torture.
The armed forces minister, Bob Ainsworth, said “acts of abuse” had been carried out by a “very small minority” of British troops.
“I deeply regret the actions … and I offer my sincere apologies and sympathy to the family of Baha Mousa and the other eight Iraqi detainees,” Ainsworth added.
He said “all but a handful” of the more than 120,000 British troops who have served in Iraq had conducted themselves “to the highest standards”.
“But this does not excuse that, during 2003 and 2004, a very small minority committed acts of abuse, and we condemn their actions,” he added.
Seven members of the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment, including the commander of the 1st battalion, had faced the most expensive court martial in British history.
All were eventually acquitted of negligence and abuse after an investigation that cost more than £20m and took over three years.
A six-month military trial at the Bulford court martial centre, in Wiltshire, involved 100 witnesses, including eight Iraqis.
Corporal Donald Payne, 35, became the first British serviceman to admit a war crime after pleading guilty to the inhumane treatment of Iraqi prisoners. He was jailed for a year.
Much of the hearing rested on whether headquarters staff at 19 Mechanised Brigade had sanctioned the use of what British troops call “conditioning”.
The process involves the hooding, handcuffing and placing of terrorist suspects into stress positions, as well as depriving them of sleep, in order to make them more likely to answer questions.
Shami Chakrabarti, the director of the human rights group Liberty, said Mousa was “the Stephen Lawrence of Iraq”.
“A direct legal and moral consequence of today’s admission that Mousa and others were unlawfully tortured and killed in British custody is that there must be a wholesale independent inquiry into what went wrong,” she said.
“British soldiers should never be sent into post-conflict situations without adequate training and advice.”
Lawyers for the detainees said the soldiers’ actions were in breach of both the Geneva convention and the Human Rights Act.
Their demands for damages run into six figures, and today’s MoD announcement opens the door to unlimited compensation pay-outs to Mousa’s family and the eight other men.