Nearly 300 British Army personnel who served in Iraq are suspected of committing war crimes, according to a new report by a team set up to look into evidence of murder, abuse and torture during the Iraq war.
About 280 soldiers and other personnel have been sent documents telling them they were involved in an incident under investigation by the Iraq historic allegations team (IHAT), a criminal investigation unit.
Dozens of cases have emerged in which British soldiers were accused of unlawfully killing Iraqis. Police chiefs and right-wing MPs have called the investigation a “despicable witch-hunt” and law firms representing Iraqi claimants have been attacked in the media.
Britain’s most senior military lawyer at the start of the Iraq War has condemned attempts by the British Army to smear the law firms involved.
Lieutenant-Colonel Nicholas Mercer, the British Army’s chief legal adviser in Iraq in 2003, said: “This isn’t just about human rights lawyers, there were plenty of people within the military and the military legal community who raised their concerns as well, and are still doing so.”
To date, the British Ministry of Defence has paid out 19.6 million pounds sterling in out-of-court settlements in 323 cases relating to the actions of British forces in Iraq.
Mercer, who has now left the military, reported prisoner abuse by British soldiers just weeks after the invasion. He witnessed prisoners hooded and kneeling on the ground next to an interrogation tent.
“Seeing prisoners in stress positions and hooded was serious, it was a shock. I’d never seen anything like it before. It was shocking and alarming,” he recalled.
His concerns were passed up to ministerial level in March 2003.
In an inquiry into the death of Baha Mousa, an Iraqi man who died while in British Army custody in Basra, it was found that the British Army was still using five “interrogation techniques” -- hooding, white noise, food and drink deprivation, painful stress positions, and sleep deprivation. Those techniques were used against Irish republicans in the 1970s and are now recognised as torture methods.
The treatment Mercer endured from the MoD after blowing the whistle on prisoner abuse ultimately saw him leave the military in 2011.
Last week, the International Criminal Court announced it would launch a preliminary examination of claims that British troops committed war crimes after the invasion of Iraq. It was responding to a complaint made by Birmingham-based lawyer Phil Shiner.
“In the past, if anything happened that was untoward, it was either covered up, like the Mau Mau, or buried till kingdom come,” Mercer said. “Now you’ve got the ICC sitting on your shoulder. Britain is used to conducting things as it wanted to conduct them, but it can’t any more.”
Shiner who is the scourge of the British Army, bringing case after case alleging brutality against Iraqi and Afghan prisoners.
He has spent years challenging British Army conduct, and now he fears he will suffer the same fate as Belfast defence lawyer Pat Finucane, assassinated by a British death squad in 1989.
“They will phone my office, sometimes daily,” he said. They’ll shout ‘c*nt’ to whoever answers the phone. I’ve had to train my team to stay calm and put the phone down.”
Has he had death threats? “Plenty, in letters, in packages in the post, in emails. People ask me, ‘Isn’t that what Pat Finucane did, he didn’t take the threats seriously either?’”