Officers vetoed inquiries into 23 deaths

By Severin Carrell

The Independent

01 August 2004

Army officers blocked police investigations into the deaths of more than 20 Iraqis during incidents involving British troops, raising concerns about the Army's right to stop inquiries into fatal shootings.

Investigations by The Independent on Sunday have revealed that British Army commanders in Iraq routinely used their powers to stop the Royal Military Police and detectives in the Special Investigations Branch from looking into fatal shootings.

The disclosure has raised fears that in some cases, British troops may be escaping prosecution for illegally killing Iraqi civilians - a charge already levelled at some regiments by Amnesty International and human rights lawyers.

This is the latest development in a wider controversy about the conduct of British troops, including its payments of "blood money" over civilian deaths, such as eight-year-old Hanan Saleh Matrud and the alleged torture of Iraqi detainees - two cases highlighted below. In a leading article today, the IoS calls for greater openness by the Government on allegations of misconduct by some British troops, and the way they are investigated.

The MoD has confirmed that in 19 cases where Iraqis were killed after the end of the war in May last year, no investigation was launched because local Army officers decided that their soldiers had "clearly" acted within their "rules of engagement". The High Court in London heard last week that the same decision had been taken in four more cases.

One of the four involved the fatal shooting of a middle-aged woman about to have supper. In another, two men at a funeral were shot. The third involved the death of a man during a house search. In the fourth, a minivan driver shot dead from behind, an SIB inquiry was halted on the orders of a regimental commanding officer. Defence officials have since overruled local commanders and asked for police inquiries in all four cases.

The MoD also told the IoS it does not know how many Iraqi deaths were reported by British soldiers to their commanders or how many times commanders decided not to ask the RMP to investigate. The sweeping powers of regimental commanders to halt or refuse to order investigations is at the centre of mounting legal and political controversy - and has been raised in the Cabinet by the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith. In June, he asked Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, to strip COs of their rights to block prosecutions after one refused to let the Army prosecutors charge a soldierover the death of Hassan Abbad Said. That case has been handed over to the Metropolitan Police.

The IoS revealed last week that regimental commanders in Iraq were quietly stripped of their powers to institute or stop police inquiries in February - a move which coincided with the first upsurge of allegations that British troops had shot Iraqi civilians. In the High Court last week, the MoD was accused of breaching the Human Rights Act by failing to investigate properly a series of fatal shootings and allegations of abuse.

The MoD admitted in court that in most inquiries the RMP and SIB needed the permission of Army COs at every stage. The CO could refuse to allow an investigation to start; could order an inquiry to be stopped; could decide not to pass a case on to the SIB and also refuse to allow a soldier to be charged.

The MoD's barrister, Professor Christopher Greenwood QC, said these powers were needed because commanders were legally in charge of maintaining discipline. The MoD also insists it is unrealistic to investigate every shooting in a dangerous country such as Iraq.

Even so, say ministers, the MoD is already prosecuting five soldiers over two separate incidents of abuse and of injuring an Iraqi boy. There are 13 cases being taken to court or close to prosecution.

Adam Price, the Plaid Cymru MP who has led calls for an overhaul of Army investigations, said that where the UK was the occupying power, higher legal standards should apply. He said: "An independent police inquiry into each case would no longer leave COs in the difficult position of having to order investigations into their own comrades. Having these decisions made on the hoof has caused major problems."

How we were first to break the story

The story of how Baha Mousa was among a group of Iraqis assaulted by UK troops was broken by The Independent on Sunday on 4 January.

Robert Fisk obtained copies of the medical records that backed up accounts provided by survivors of a savage beating at the hands of British soldiers.

In what has become one of the most influential dispatches filed from Iraq in the aftermath of the war, Fisk reported how Mousa died after being detained in a raid on the hotel where he was working.

The case, initially ignored by most of the rest of the British press, has since become one of the most notorious.