Foreign Secretary William Hague has tried to dismiss a bid to trigger international prosecutions of British politicians and senior military figures over alleged war crimes in Iraq.
Lawyers acting for alleged torture victims have submitted an extensive dossier to the International Criminal Court (ICC), detailing claims of mistreatment by more than 400 Iraqis at the hands of British troops.
British legal firm Public Interest Lawyers and the Berlin-based European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) have asked the court to issue charges for the “systematic” abuse of civilians and detainees.
However, Mr Hague yesterday said there was no need for the ICC to investigate allegations of UK forces abusing and killing detainees.
The new dossier is said to draw on evidence from hundreds of alleged victims, relating to “thousands of allegations of mistreatment amounting to war crimes of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” between 2003 and 2008.
The head of the army, General Sir Peter Wall, former defence secretary Geoff Hoon, and ex-defence minister and former Scottish MP Adam Ingram are among those reported to be named in the 250-page dossier.
It has emerged the report will be publicly released at the Law Society in London tomorrow.
Mr Hague dismissed the attempt to trigger prosecutions, insisting there had been no “systematic” torture by troops and individual cases had either been dealt with by the British authorities or were the subject of inquiries.
The Foreign Secretary said: “The British armed forces uphold high standards, so we reject any allegations of systematic abuse. But where there are substantiated allegations of things going wrong, these things have been or are being investigated.
“That does not require references to the International Criminal Court. This is being dealt with properly within the UK through a very detailed and exhaustive process.”
Asked if the ICC should respond to the complaint by saying Britain was already dealing with the issues, Mr Hague said: “That is what they should say. They will look at anything that is sent to them, but this is being dealt with properly in the UK.”
But human rights lawyer Phil Shiner, from Public Interest Lawyers, said his firm and the ECCHR had been forced to act, as the UK authorities were unwilling to do so.
He said: “We have no interest in this country in prosecuting those directly responsible and no interest at all in prosecuting those responsible in positions and chains of command, so we have no alterative than to go to the International Criminal Court.”
Mr Shiner, whose firm has reportedly secured £3 million in compensation for previous clients – many of them foreign nationals who have suffered abuse in Iraq – claimed the Iraq Historical Allegations Team set up by the MoD to investigate any wrong-doing had produced little in four years.
He added: “And I am sure that the plan, as it was in Northern Ireland, is to drag it out [an investigation] and kick it into the long grass, and make sure that if it ever comes out, those responsible are long since dead and the British [public] probably no longer care. That’s not good enough.”
Mr Shiner went on: “The ICC has no alternative other than to conduct an initial investigation. They have a massive [amount of] material. Thereafter we’ll have to wait and see.
“Here we have very clear material [evidence] that a western state has committed war crimes of torture, wilful killing, cruel and inhuman treatment, gross humiliation. Those war crimes need to be properly investigated and those at the top of the chain of command need to be held accountable.”
The ICC rejected calls for an investigation into alleged abuse by UK forces in 2006, citing the low number of cases – fewer than 20 at the time – among the reasons. The court receives dozens of submissions every year, but takes on very few, acting only where national jurisdictions are unable or unwilling to investigate alleged crimes – which has been the case in certain parts of Africa.
Lawyers acting for the victims now say that both criteria have been satisfied, as there are hundreds of testimonies, and what they claimed was an unwillingness by the authorities to ensure war crimes were dealt with.
The two organisations said they wanted the ICC to open formal investigations into senior figures at the Ministry of Defence who “knew or should have known of the widespread patterns of abuse, and turned a blind eye to them”, and named Mr Hoon.
Wolfgang Kaleck, from the ECCHR, added: “The International Criminal Court in The Hague is the last resort for victims of torture and mistreatment to achieve justice.
“War crimes and other severe violations of human rights must be investigated and prosecuted, regardless of whether they are committed by the most powerful.”
The MoD, however, last night insisted alleged abuses had been or were being investigated through British and European courts, through public inquiries, in parliament and through the Iraq Historic Allegations Team.
It said: “Should we be approached by the ICC, we will take the opportunity to explain the very extensive work under way to deal with historic allegations of abuse.”
Firm of lawyers with key role in bringing about abuse inquiries
The firm Public Interest Lawyers has played a key role in several cases involving alleged abuse in Iraq, most notably the death of Baha Mousa, described as an “appalling episode of serious gratuitous violence” on the part of British soldiers.
They have also been instrumental in bringing about major public inquiries, including the al-Sweady inquiry. It centres around the so-called Battle of Danny Boy, which began when a patrol of Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders was ambushed close to a checkpoint known as Danny Boy near Majar al-Kabir in May 2004. The fighting has been described as some of the fiercest of the Iraq conflict.
The inquiry seeks to identify events surrounding the deaths of more than 20 Iraqi men from the Mahdi army, and treatment of prisoners taken.
Last September, Colonel Adam Griffiths, a commanding officer with the Highlanders, told the court abuse claims were “baseless rumours”, partly caused by insurgents’ efforts to discredit coalition forces.
Findings are due to reported back later this year.
Catalogue of beatings, torture and degradation
Testimonies of hundreds of Iraqis who claim they were tortured by British troops have been submitted to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
One man who was beaten in front of his family said: “They made me sit in a kneeling position with my head pushed downwards and then they started to beat me. They beat me on my face, back and stomach.”
Another, who suffered more than 60 punches to his head, stated: “There were many soldiers pushing and throwing me … As each soldier caught me they would punch me.” He described how his son was abused: “A soldier brought my eight-year-old son into the room. The officer started slapping my son round his face and shouting at him … I was on the floor in a terrible condition and couldn’t move.”
A man who was hooded stated: “Sand kept coming into the hood. It was extremely uncomfortable and difficult to breathe … We were left to kneel in the sun for hours. If I moved position and bent my head forward at all, a soldier would come and kick me hard.”
Another said: “Interrogators … threatened to rape my sister and force me to watch and said they would also arrest my old mother and father.”
An individual held in solitary confinement said: “I was beaten regularly, and was not allowed to go to the toilet or to shower. The psychological suffering during this period is indescribable.”