Government denies war crime ‘cover-up’
Credible allegations must be investigated, but we need to be clear that they are rare, not the norm
The Government has denied allegations of the torture and murder of civilians by British soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, told The Andrew Marr Show: “All of the allegations … have been looked at by the Armed Forces’ prosecuting authorities because we want to have accountability where there’s wrongdoing”. According to BBC Panorama and The Sunday Times, leaked documents indicate incidents were covered up by senior officers.
MINISTERS have denied a “cover-up” of alleged war crimes involving the torture and murder of civilians by British soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Military detectives have reportedly investigated a 2012 SAS raid on a compound in Helmand province where three “unarmed” children and a young man were shot dead, as well as the alleged “daily” abuse of prisoners by the Black Watch regiment in Basra in 2003, and the fatal shooting of an Iraqi policeman in the same year.
According to BBC Panorama and The Sunday Times, leaked documents indicate the incidents were covered up by senior officers and only cursorily investigated by Royal Military Police.
Investigators on the Iraq Historic Allegations Team (Ihat) and Operation Northmoor – for Afghanistan – were then put under pressure by the Ministry of Defence (MOD) to wind up the inquiries, it is claimed.
Yesterday the Government denied the allegations, with Foreign Secretary
Dominic Raab telling The Andrew Marr Show that the prosecuting authorities for the British Armed Forces were “some of the most rigorous in the world”.
“All of the allegations that had evidence have been looked at by the Armed Forces prosecuting authorities because we want to have accountability where there’s wrongdoing,” he said.
Ihat was shut down in 2017 after it emerged that the disgraced solicitor Phil Shiner paid fixers in Iraq to find clients. But some former Ihat and Operation Northmoor investigators have now said Mr Shiner’s actions were used as an excuse to close down the inquiries.
Ihat spent around three years investigating the actions of the Black Watch in 2003, when the unit was responsible for policing and security in the southern Iraqi city of Basra.
The team reportedly gathered evidence that at least two detainees were unlawfully killed at Camp Stephen.
Despite allegedly photographing one of the men, Radhi Nama, in hospital with injuries, RMP investigators allegedly accepted the soldiers’ account that he had died of a heart attack. During the 2012 SAS raid on the village of Loy Bagh near Camp Bastion, one Special Forces soldier reportedly entered a side building and killed four young inhabitants.
According to the leaked documents, he told superiors he fired because they were standing up with what looked like weapons, despite bullet marks suggesting they were sitting when shot.
The documents allege a senior SAS commander emailed International Security Assistance Force headquarters describing the raid as Aghan-led, thereby avoiding an RMP probe.
An MOD spokesman said: “Allegations that the MOD interfered with investigations or prosecution decisions relating to the conduct of UK forces in Iraq and Afghanistan are untrue.
“Throughout the process, the decisions of prosecutors and the investigators have been independent of the MOD and involved external oversight and legal advice.”
My heart sank when I read the front page story yesterday about alleged British Army war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Here we go again,” I thought.
It is always easy to make allegations, but it is very difficult to disprove them. In any sensational story, it is invariably the first word that people believe. Of course, I am dismayed by the apparent emergence of evidence implicating British soldiers in the murder of children and the torture of civilians that may have been covered up by military commanders. But are these the repetition of previous discredited allegations? Others have reacted more strongly, as they are perfectly entitled to do, thinking that things must have gone horribly wrong in Iraq and Afghanistan on a widespread scale apparently in a criminal way. Let me explain why both of these responses are justified. Getting to the truth of these matters is important not just for the people of Iraq and Afghanistan but for the morale and reputation of the British Army.
I am in no doubt that the vast majority of operations that members of the British Army engage in are carried out correctly and within the Law of Armed Conflict, the Geneva Convention and within our national law – and not just because I was an officer in the British Army for 40 years. Most British soldiers get up in the morning to do their duty according to the law and within the best traditions of our military. One of the six core values of the British Army that all soldiers have been educated in for the past 20 years is respect for others. This is key, and is taught as the means of fighting bullying, sexual harassment and abuse of power on deployed operations – whether overseas or, previously, in Northern Ireland.
But in any organisation, things can go wrong, sometimes very wrong. Moreover, no one is above the law and everyone in the British Army is accountable under the law. When a credible allegation of wrongdoing is made then it absolutely must be investigated; when evidence is discovered substantiating those allegations then charges should be laid and tested in a court of law. If convicted, a soldier or officer – irrespective of rank – should accept the finding and the sentence of that court. There are no exceptions.
That said, it is clear that the way in which the activities of the British Army in Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan have been portrayed has tilted the balance of common fairness against honourable and disciplined soldiers. The Iraq Historic Allegations Team (Ihat) was set up in 2010 under huge pressure from vexatious and largely false accusations against British soldiers deployed in Iraq, made by the now struck-off lawyer, Phil Shiner, and others. The Ministry of Defence was frightened by the thought of cases being taken to the International Criminal Court and abjectly went along with the Ihat investigations. The same applied in Afghanistan and, latterly, has applied to the legacy of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, although there are separate and other issues at stake over Northern Ireland, and this is not the place to discuss them specifically.
It was only when political and public pressure was placed on the MOD that the then secretary of state for defence, Sir Michael Fallon, pulled the plug on Ihat and the similarly investigative Operation Northmoor in Afghanistan. He was right to close those inquiries down. At the time he did so there had only been one successful prosecution relating to Iraq generated by the Ihat work – that of an investigator who had illegally posed as a policeman.
Although Sir Michael was right – and although my heart sank this morning – nothing changes the basic fact that when there are credible allegations against British soldiers, backed by evidence, charges should be laid and a trial held. But we must be clear that this is the rare exception and not the norm.
Let Panorama have its hour in the spotlight. But ask yourselves this question: is this typical of the British Army, or are these isolated incidents where a few soldiers used bad judgment, acted contrary to their training and the Army’s values and standards and were, perhaps, poorly led?
No one is above the law. Where allegations can be substantiated and compelling evidence produced, then convictions and sentences should follow. But the vast majority of British soldiers are not thugs and murderers.
Read more at telegraph.co.uk/ opinion
General the Lord Dannatt was Chief of the General Staff from 2006 to 2009