Claims that British soldiers tortured and murdered up to 20 prisoners after a battle with Iraqi insurgents are to be scrutinised at a public inquiry.
Concern that the Army covered up the most serious accusation of war crimes that it has faced has prompted Bob Ainsworth, the Defence Secretary, to order the independent inquiry.
Mr Ainsworth is due to tell MPs next week that the inquiry will centre on an incident known as the Battle of Danny Boy. It took place in May 2004 and involved soldiers from the Argyll and Southern Highlanders and the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment.
The Ministry of Defence said that 20 insurgents were killed “on the battlefield” after an exchange of fire during an attack on an Army vehicle and checkpoint. However, Iraqi families claim that some of those killed had been captured alive before being tortured and murdered by troops at Camp Abu Naji, a British base.
Evidence indicating torture and mutilation allegedly includes close-range bullet wounds, the removal of eyes and stab wounds, human rights lawyers have claimed.
Army sources say that, at a checkpoint called Danny Boy, heavily outnumbered troops mounted a heroic defence. The battle took place five miles from the town of Majar al-Kabir in Maysan Province, where six British military policemen, known as Red Caps, were murdered the year before.
The Army claims that 20 bodies were removed from the battlefield for identification before being returned to their families, with no evidence of torture. It insists that nine prisoners were taken for questioning and were not mistreated.
Lawyers for the family of Hamid al-Sweady, 19, have demanded an independent investigation into claims that he was killed after being taken prisoner. They also represent five prisoners who claim that they were subject to unlawful interrogation methods, The Ministry of Defence had opposed a public inquiry into the allegations arguing that an investigation by the Royal Military Police (RMP) had concluded that the claims of torture and murder were groundless.
Bill Rammell, the Armed Forces Minister, has insisted that there is no evidence of abuse and murder. “For these allegations to be true, it would have involved a massive conspiracy involving huge numbers of people.”
However, the High Court has condemned the investigation by the RMP as “not thorough and proficient”. It criticised Colonel Dudley Giles, the respected second-in-command of the Royal Military Police, who has been responsible for overseeing investigations of all allegations of abuse in Iraq. The judges, led by Lord Justice Scott Baker, described Colonel Giles, who was giving evidence on behalf of the Defence Secretary, as an “unsatisfactory witness” whose evidence was “seriously flawed”.
The Ministry of Defence said yesterday that as a result of the criticism by the High Court the Royal Military Police had “changed its command structure”. The force is redeploying 46 officers to investigate historic allegations of crimes in Iraq. The MoD has also formed a Department of Judicial Policy Engagement to collect and prepare evidence for criminal trials, inquests and public inquiries.
A military spokeswoman said: “While determining the truth is a job for that body I fully expect this independent inquiry will exonerate once and for all the brave and professional personnel involved in this incident.”
Daniel Carey, of Public Interest Lawyers, which is representing Mr al-Sweady’s uncle and the five men who claim to have been tortured, said: “These are the most serious of allegations and they are supported by evidence heard during the court hearing.
“It does ministers no credit to continue to protest the Army’s innocence when it is clear that its own investigation was at best incompetent and at worst wilfully defective.
“Serious questions now remain to be answered about this and the hundreds of other cases involving Iraqi civilians that we now know went uninvestigated in Iraq.”
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