were celebrating beating us. They were behaving like criminals'
An Iraqi hotel owner told a court martial yesterday that British soldiers relished beating him, making bets on whether they could knock him to the ground and laughing when he complained.
Ahmad Taha Musa al-Matairi said soldiers at a detention centre in Basra, southern Iraq, took turns to punch and kick him and his fellow civilian prisoners. "They were celebrating beating us. It was like Christmas," he said.
Mr Matairi said he had welcomed the British forces to Basra with flowers because he hated Saddam Hussein's regime. But after being beaten "continuously" over a 36-hour period, he concluded they were no different from the former leader.
Four British soldiers are accused of abusing Iraqi prisoners and three officers are charged with failing to make sure the detainees were not ill-treated. One of the detainees, hotel receptionist Baha Mousa, died after being allegedly beaten at the detention centre in September 2003.
Mr Matairi is the first of the Iraqi civilians to give evidence. He said he had gone to the hotel in Basra after his brother phoned to say it had been raided by soldiers. When he arrived, it was surrounded by tanks and the hotel workers were lying on the floor of the reception area. He was also ordered to lie down and a soldier began kicking him in the head, he said.
Mr Matairi said he had glanced up at one point and seen the soldiers loading the hotel's money into sacks. A little later he and the hotel workers were taken to a lavatory and deliberately splashed with water from the toilet bowl.
"It was really dirty," he said. "I welcomed the British soldiers with flowers. I put flowers in my children's hands and welcomed the British soldiers because of Saddam's wrongdoing. So it was hard to do that to me. I could not believe that. They were behaving like criminals."
Mr Matairi said he and the workers were taken to a British camp, which had previously been used by Saddam's intelligence officers. He was hooded with two sacks and was struggling to breathe, he said. Speaking through an Arabic interpreter, Mr Matairi said the detainees had been "continuously" beaten. "They started to kick us on the face, on other parts of the body. They did not tell us why." At one point he was beaten with a stick, at another hit with "karate blows".
The court martial has been told they were held in a painful "stress position" banned by the British army. "They would order us to sit; we would sit. They would order us to stand; we would stand. Stretch your hands out; we would do that."
Julian Bevan QC, prosecuting, asked Mr Matairi what would have happened if he had disobeyed. "It could be what happened to Baha Mousa," the witness replied. He told his fellow detainees to do exactly what they were told to do - "or we would be killed". Mr Matairi said the soldiers began to make bets on whether they could make him fall over. "They hit me in the kidneys and I fell down. They started to shout as if to say they had succeeded. We had done nothing to cause that."
He said that on the first evening of his captivity he had been taken to another building and interrogated. The hearing has heard that the detainees were initially suspected of being insurgents.
Mr Matairi was asked about the death of Baha Mousa. The court martial has been told that he died after suffering 93 injuries. Mr Matairi said he heard Baha Mousa shout: "My children will become orphans ... my children, my children. I'm going to die; blood, blood." Mr Matairi was also asked about a cache of weapons found at the hotel. He said Iraqi civilians had to keep weapons to protect themselves from attack. The hearing continues.
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