Iraq abuse claims: 'Inadequate response' by UK government

British soldier in Iraq The MoD has held inquiries into abuse in Iraq

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The British government's response to claims that British troops abused and unlawfully killed civilians in Iraq was inadequate, the High Court has ruled.

Lawyers representing 180 Iraqi civilians had called for a full public inquiry in Britain.

The court stopped short of ordering such an inquiry, but said there should be a series of further investigations into the allegations.

It said "a new approach" to the inquiry into the allegations was needed.

The allegations of mistreatment include sexual abuse, food, water and sleep deprivation, prolonged solitary confinement, mock executions and being denied clothes.

The Ministry of Defence set up the Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT) to investigate the claims - but lawyers for the Iraqis had claimed it was not independent.

Although two judges in London rejected that accusation, they concluded that the present IHAT investigation "does not fulfil" the UK's human rights obligations under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

That article covers the duty to investigate suspicious deaths.

The judges, in their ruling, said: "Although we are satisfied... that IHAT has now been structured in such a way that it can independently carry out its investigative and prosecutorial functions, the task of investigating and inquiring into the very large number of deaths occurring at many different times and in different locations requires a new approach if it is to be achieved in a timely, cost-effective and proportionate manner that discharges the very important investigative duties imposed upon the state."

'Competence and integrity'

Speaking about the allegations, the judges said "what happened is often unclear and the subject of dispute.

Analysis

This is a judgement that has enabled both sides to claim victory. The High Court has not supported the idea of a full-blown inquiry into allegations by the Iraqis of "systemic abuse".

But nor, by any means, does it let the Ministry of Defence off the hook. It's particularly concerned about deaths in custody - the Iraqis say there were at least 12 - which have not been properly investigated almost a decade after many of them took place.

The delay is, it says, "a source of great and increasing concern". It wants to see what would be, in effect, a series of mini-inquiries similar to coroners' inquests, calling for "a full, fair and fearless investigation accessible to the victim's families and to the public into each death".

The court suggests that the most serious claims of mistreatment should then also be fully examined.

"Many of the incidents occurred several years ago; the Iraqi witnesses are largely residents of Iraq. Some incidents have been the subject of prosecution and more may be."

After the ruling, Ministry of Defence said it welcomed the court's finding that IHAT was independent and "carries out its duties with competence and integrity".

A spokesperson said: "We are also pleased that the court has agreed that the Secretary of State was justified in concluding that a single comprehensive public inquiry into allegations of abuse in Iraq should not be established. This would have led to unnecessary expense and unacceptable delay.

"The IHAT continues to make progress in its task of investigating allegations which have been made against British troops serving in Iraq."

The Ministry of Defence has paid out more than £16.76m to settle 267 claims of mistreatment and unlawful detention, with 134 cases still being negotiated.

'Serious concerns'

Phil Shiner, of Public Interest Lawyers, who represent the Iraqis, also reacted: "The court has expressed its very serious concerns about allegations in these cases of the most serious kind involving murder, manslaughter, the wilful infliction of serious bodily injury, sexual indignities and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

"It has found that the Ministry of Defence have not complied with international and domestic law requiring there to be proper public scrutiny of these cases and the systemic issues arising from them.

"My clients welcome the public inquisitorial process that will now follow."

Two public inquiries have already been launched into similar abuse claims.

The first inquiry was into the death of 26-year-old hotel worker Baha Mousa in UK military custody in September 2003. It concluded in September 2011, with inquiry chairman Sir William Gage blaming "corporate failure" at the Ministry of Defence for the use of banned interrogation methods in Iraq.

Sir William said a "large number" of soldiers assaulted Mr Mousa and the other detainees, and he added that many others - including several officers - must have known what was happening..

And the ongoing Al-Sweady inquiry is looking at allegations that the human rights of a number of Iraqi nationals were abused by British troops in the aftermath of a firefight in 2004 near Majar al Kabir.

The judges said the Baha Mousa Inquiry cost £25m, and the Al-Sweady Inquiry has cost £17m so far.

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