( Reuter )- Britain's Defense Ministry is to admit that its troops tortured and breached the human rights of nine Iraqi men they detained in southern Iraq in 2003, opening the way to potentially large compensation claims.
The decision follows years of legal wrangling in which the family of Baha Musa, an Iraqi hotel worker who was beaten and died in British custody, and eight other Iraqis who survived the beatings, have sought justice.
The ministry, which will make the admission in the High Court on Friday, said on Thursday it was doing so to try to smooth the process of paying compensation to Musa's family and the eight other Iraqis and end lengthy court proceedings.
The case was one of the British military's darkest episodes in Iraq. All nine detainees suffered 36 hours of violent interrogation before Musa died with 93 injuries to his body, including a broken nose and ribs.
"I deeply regret the actions of a very small number of troops and I offer my sincere apologies and sympathy to the family of Baha Musa and the eight others," armed forces minister Bob Ainsworth said in a statement issued along with the ministry's admission of its breach of human rights.
"During 2003 and 2004, a very small minority committed acts of abuse and we condemn their actions."
Lawyers for Musa's family and the eight others welcomed the decision but said it was still not clear what compensation would be paid and whether the ministry would issue a formal apology.
"It's definitely a very welcome step," said Sapna Malik, a lawyer with Leigh Day, which represents the claimants.
"We spoke with Baha Musa's father today and he definitely felt that this was an admission of guilt and in some senses a victory for them. It's an acknowledgment that Iraqi lives are not cheap, that they do count," she said.
Claims for compensation have already been lodged with the British courts, but the size of any payment will probably not be decided before June, when lawyers begin talks with the ministry.
The ministry confirmed it expected to pay compensation, but would not say how much. "Obviously it will be larger in the case of Baha Musa because he died," a spokesman said.
Musa, who was 26 when he died, left two children. His wife had died two months earlier of a brain tumor.
While the image of the U.S. military in Iraq has been deeply tarnished by the abuse at Abu Ghraib, Britain's smaller forces have largely escaped public censure, though 21 soldiers have been court-martialed for abuses in Iraq.
Seven officers and soldiers were court-martialed in the case of Musa and the others, but only one was found guilty after admitting mistreatment of prisoners.
Musa and the other men were detained by British troops who raided a hotel in Basra, southern Iraq, in September 2003 looking for insurgents.