The only conviction secured in the longest British court martial in memory was against one of the five who had charges against them dropped. Corporal Donald Payne had admitted from the beginning to abusing prisoners.

 

But manslaughter charges against him were among those dropped, meaning no one will be punished directly over the death of Baha Musa, an Iraqi hotel receptionist, who died after receiving 93 injuries during two days of beatings in British custody.

 

British command approval?

 

The trial at Bulford in Wiltshire was the last and biggest of three high-profile courts martial of British soldiers accused of killing Iraqi detainees.

 

The other cases collapsed with no convictions, infuriating human rights groups - which accuse the government of failing to bring soldiers to justice – as well as supporters of the military who say it has pursued weak cases.

 

The latest case also raised questions over whether senior British commanders approved severe treatment of prisoners which Britain considers illegal under the Geneva Conventions.

 

Among those cleared was Jorge Mendonca, the former commanding officer of the Queen's Lancashire Regiment, who had been the highest-ranking British officer to face a court martial in modern times.

 

'Stress positions' 

 

Judge Stuart McKinnon said on Monday that he had ordered Mendonca cleared because both prosecutors and the defence agreed that Mendonca's commanders had sanctioned the abuse, known as "conditioning".

 

Prisoners were kept in "stress positions" and hooded for long periods to "condition" them for interrogations, practices which Britain considers illegal.

 

"It is now effectively common ground that brigade did indeed sanction the use of hooding and stress positions," McKinnon said. "That obviously contributed to the favourable result for Colonel Mendonca."

 

The others who were cleared were Wayne Cowcroft, a Lance Corporal and Private Darren Fallon, each charged with inhuman treatment, and Sergeant Kelvin Stacey, charged with assault.