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British court backs inquiry into death of Iraqi

LONDON -- A court ruled yesterday that the government should hold an independent inquiry into the case of an Iraqi civilian who was allegedly beaten to death by British troops.

Baha Mousa, 26, a Basra hotel receptionist, died in September 2003 after being arrested and taken to a British military base.

Mousa's family had asked the High Court to rule that European and British human rights laws applied to British soldiers in Iraq and that there should be an independent inquiry to determine whether he was unlawfully killed. The court agreed.

But judges Bernard Rix and Thayne Forbes rejected applications from the families of five other Iraqis allegedly killed by soldiers from Britain.

Government lawyers had argued that British troops serving in Iraq weren't subject to the human rights laws because they were outside European jurisdiction. Officials say all allegations of death and mistreatment by British forces are investigated by the military.

But the judges ruled that Mousa's death came within British jurisdiction because he was in British custody when he died, unlike the other five Iraqis.

They also criticized the Royal Military Police investigation into Mousa's death, saying it was not "timely, open, or effective."

A lawyer acting for Mousa's family welcomed the ruling.

"Today is a historic day for human rights and the rule of law in the UK," attorney Phil Shiner said.

The Ministry of Defense said it would seek permission to appeal.

The ministry welcomed the rulings in the five other cases that "the European Convention on Human Rights is not applicable because the claimants did not fall within the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom."

"This decision is important for current and future operations since in Iraq, where UK armed forces are regularly fired upon and regularly return fire in self-defense, it is not possible for us to adopt procedures such as the immediate establishment of a police cordon to enable the painstaking collection of forensic evidence," the statement said.

All six victims in the High Court case died in British-occupied southeastern Iraq after major combat was declared over on May 1, 2003, and before the handover of power to an Iraqi administration on June 28, 2004.

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