Thursday October 18, 2007
The Ministry of Defence will come under fresh pressure tomorrow to launch an independent inquiry into allegations of abuse of Iraqis by British soldiers after a fierce gun battle with insurgents three years ago.
Papers to be handed to the high court include witness statements, death certificates and a video taken by relatives of dead Iraqis showing bodies being taken to a hospital in Amara and bodybags being opened.
The statements were taken last month in Damascus from hospital workers who say they saw the bodies of Iraqis handed over by the soldiers for burial. They claim the bodies show evidence of gouged-out eyes, serious injuries to genitals, asphyxiation and hanging.
A detainee released by the soldiers says in a statement he was "continuously punched and kicked" and that he saw blood in the water under his feet coming from nearby toilets. The statement, from Hussein Abbas, was taken by telephone this week from Amara.
The five-minute video shows pictures of bodies being taken to hospital, some in Red Crescent ambulances, and close-ups of some bodies after bodybags had been unzipped. It is understood there has been no independent assessment of the injuries since they were caught on camera.
Earlier this week, lawyers acting for the Iraqis were granted legal aid to help them pursue the case in the British courts where they are hoping to force the military into an independent inquiry.
The MoD has consistently denied any wrongdoing by soldiers.
A number of Iraqis were killed, and others seized by British troops, after one of the fiercest firefights involving British troops on the road from Amara to Basra, near Majar al-Kabir, on May 14 2004.
The MoD said at the time that 14 Iraqis were known to have been killed but that there could have been more.
Witnesses said that between nine and 15 others were rounded up and taken to a British base near Amara, 13 miles to the north. The following day at least nine were transferred to the Shaibah detention centre near Basra.
Allegations of ill-treatment of the Iraqis first surfaced in the media shortly after the incident, which began when British troops were ambushed by insurgents armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
The Guardian saw death certificates written by Dr Adel Salid Majid, director of the hospital in Majar al-Kabir, the day after the battle. Seven of the certificates stated that corpses handed to hospital authorities by British troops showed signs of "mutilation" and "torture".
Dr Majid's conclusions were questioned by a senior doctor at the Amara general hospital, 15 miles to the north. Speaking anonymously to the Guardian, he disputed Dr Majid's claims after examining one of the seven corpses in question.
After the media reports, the Royal Military Police (RMP) special investigation branch conducted a year-long internal inquiry into the allegations. The Ministry of Defence said yesterday: "The RMP carried out a thorough investigation and found no evidence of deliberate mutilation of corpses by the British army."
Emphasising the word "deliberate", defence officials said damage to the skull of at least one body occurred when it was being loaded on to a Warrior armoured vehicle. They also pointed out that the kind of multiple weapons systems used in the gun battle could cause very nasty injuries.
The MoD said last night that the military police saw the video as part of their investigation into the allegations.
The RMP's full report, however, has not been published. Government lawyers acting for the MoD have told Phil Shiner, of Public Interest Lawyers, the firm acting for the Iraqis, that he could see a summary of it "with redactions as appropriate and as necessary to protect operational information" but only for the purpose of any legal proceedings.
Mr Shiner is acting for relatives of a number of Iraqis who died as well as the detainee, Mr Abbas. He was granted legal aid this week to pursue the case which will be presented by two leading human rights QCs, Rabinder Singh and Michael Fordham. They want the high court to order an inquiry into the allegations as required, they say, by the Human Rights Act.
Mr Shiner said the case raised "the most serious allegations" which demanded independent scrutiny.
Shami Chakrabarti, director of the civil rights group Liberty, said: "It's been four months since [in a separate incident] we saw photos of Baha Mousa's dead body tortured with 93 injuries while in British custody. In the face of this new evidence, the government still resists calls for an independent inquiry into the post-conflict treatment of civilians in Iraq."
She added: "Some will call us unpatriotic for seeking transparency of this kind but surely the contrary is true? We owe this inquiry as much to the dozens of British soldiers who gave their lives in good faith as to the grieving families."
Human rights lawyers say the courts have maintained that it is the duty of the state to set up a full independent inquiry in cases where a suspicion of deliberate wrongdoing exists.
In a witness statement taken by Public Interest Lawyers in Damascus last month, Assad Mozan, a hospital worker, says he was one of those who went to collect the bodies.
One of the dead was Ali al-Mouzani. "I was amazed as I had seen him yesterday with the British troops and he was not injured at all," he says. He adds that Mouzani had been "severely beaten in the genital area and his reproductive organs were swollen because of the severe bruising". He also refers to corpses with missing eyes.
In another witness statement also taken last month in Damascus, Khuder al-Sweady, who describes himself as a laboratory doctor, claims the genitals of one dead man, Haidar al-Lami, had been mutilated.
He also says he saw the body of his nephew, Hamid, whose cause of death, he says, was "asphyxiation".
"It was clear he had been hanged," he said. "His neck was broken, and there was also blood in his ears, which are also consistent with this diagnosis."
The high court will decide whether the MoD has a case to answer.