Britain’s armed forces face a new wave of damaging legal actions over the alleged torture of detainees in Iraq, prompting concerns from defence chiefs over the role of UK law firms whom they accuse of placing military personnel ‘under siege’.
Earlier this month Lord Guthrie, the former Chief of the Defence Staff, spoke of ‘civilian solicitors from the UK who are touting for business on the streets of Basra’.
The law firm acting for Baha Mousa, the 26-year-old Iraqi hotel receptionist whose death while in the custody of the British army led to war crimes charges against three soldiers last week, is preparing a raft of cases against the military detailing new allegations of abuse and torture.
‘The military like to suggest the Mousa case is the iceberg, not the tip. Unfortunately they are wrong,’ said Phil Shiner, a solicitor with the Birmingham-based law firm Public Interest Lawyers (PIL). ‘I’m acting in over 50 cases of which 22 involve torture or even death of civilians held in detention during occupation.’
His practice is acting on behalf of eight men who claim they were abused along with Mousa. Their claims will be heard in the Court of Appeal in October.
One man, Kifah Taha al-Mutari, alleges up to eight soldiers took it in turns to abuse him. ‘The soldiers would compete as to who could kickbox one of us the furthest. The idea was to make us crash into the wall,’ al-Mutari claims in a sworn testimony.
Shiner is also bringing a case on behalf of nine men who allege they were abused at Camp Breadbasket, the food depot near Basra in southern Iraq which was subjected to looting after the end of the Iraq war. One of the nine claims he was given a knife and ordered to chop off the finger of another detainee.
The pending legal challenges are potentially damaging to the army, which is already facing three abuse trials. The Army Prosecuting Authority, the army’s legal division, is also investigating another abuse claim and four shooting-related incidents.
An earlier lawsuit brought by Shiner has had significant consequences for the forces. Last year he won a test case against the Ministry of Defence which opened the way to the prospect of an independent Bloody Sunday-style inquiry into Mousa’s death.
The inquiry would be able to summon witnesses and secure evidence, such as CCTV footage and medical reports, which would subject Britain’s armed forces to intense scrutiny.
The prospect of seeing British soldiers in the dock later this year alarms senior defence officials. In a debate in the House of Lords earlier this month Lord Boyce, a former chief of the defence staff, said the ‘armed forces are under legal siege and being pushed in the direction in which an order could be seen as improper or legally unsound. They are being pushed by people schooled in political correctness.’
Shiner, the human rights lawyer of the year, rejected accusations he was an ‘ambulance-chasing lawyer’ out to make money. He said: ‘It’s a matter of public record that my law firm has sunk tens of thousands of pounds into these cases. We pursue [these cases] because we think it reflects badly on all of us if our armed forces can kill and torture civilians with impunity.’