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UK inquiry into Iraqi prisoner deaths reveals evidence of ‘torture’

A public inquiry into allegations that British soldiers in Iraq murdered 20 unarmed prisoners and tortured 5 others has begun in London, with further legal arguments expected to slow the inquiry in the deaths of the Iraqi men nine years ago.

The Al-Sweady inquiry will examine claims that Iraqi prisoners were tortured by British soldiers following the Battle of Danny Boy in Maysan province, southern Iraq in the summer of 2004.

Evidence has also come to light that several of the corpses suffered severe mutilation. Iraqi death certificates recorded that one man had allegedly had his penis removed while another two bodies were missing eyes.

Several of the corpses were also said to have signs of torture when they were handed back to their families by British personnel at Camp Abu Naji. 

However, there is major dispute between the British Ministry of Defense (MoD) and the families of the dead Iraqi men over the way in which the deaths occurred.

“The Iraqi witnesses say that the evidence points to there having been a number of Iraqi men having been taken into camp Abu Naji alive by the British military on 14th May, and who were handed back to their families dead the next day,” said Jonathan Acton Davis QC, counsel to the inquiry.

Jonathan Acton Davis, Lead Counsel to the Al-Sweady Public Inquiry, arrives for the first day of the inquiry, in central London March 4, 2013. (Reuters / Andrew Winning)

“The military say the evidence points to 20 Iraqi dead having been recovered from the battle and handed back to their families the next day,” he added, continuing that the two sides couldn’t even agree about the number of those killed or captured, or their identities.

On May 14th 2004, the troops embroiled in the allegations were involved in a fierce battle known as Danny Boy, the name of a permanent vehicle check point, which was on route six in Iraq. 

A group of insurgents launched an attack against vehicles of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. It soon developed into a fierce firefight, which also involved soldiers from the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment, with many Iraqis shot dead and two British soldiers being wounded.

The Iraqi dead would normally have been left on the battlefield but British soldiers were allegedly told to try and identify an insurgent thought to be involved in the murder of 6 British soldiers a year earlier in 2003.

One of the first jobs of the inquiry is to try and establish whether the 20 Iraqis were killed in battle as the MoD claims or if in fact they were captured alive and then unlawfully killed.

The inquiry will also try to determine if five men taken prisoner following the battle of Danny Boy were mistreated at a second British base in Shaibah, near Basara, between 14 May and 23 September 2004.

The al-Sweady inquiry as it is known is named after Hamid al-Sweady, a 19 year old alleged victim.

Files are seen at the venue of the Al-Sweady Inquiry is seen on the first day of the inquiry, in central London March 4, 2013. (Reuters / Stefan Wermuth)

The inquiry was set up after former prisoners and relatives of the dead men took their case to the High Court in London in February 2008. They are entitled to an independent inquiry because the UK is a signatory of the European convention on human rights.

But even as the enquiry opened on Monday, there were signs of legal disagreements to come. Lawyers for the relatives of the dead Iraqis are saying that its terms of reference are too narrow, while the MoD is arguing that it should be limited to allegations of mistreatment that were already decided in previous High Court rulings.

This is potentially the most embarrassing inquiry since the killing of 26-year-old Iraqi citizen Baha Mousa while in British custody in Basara in 2003. He was severely beaten on suspicion of being an insurgent. The Ministry of Defense never accepted any liability for Mousa's death.

According to Christpher Stanley of the UK-based Rights Watch group, "today [the MoD] is trying to manage it and put a cap on it. These are people getting away with grave human rights violations – including killing – without punishment or due process of law. “

So far the MoD has not come out well in the proceedings. The inquiry was ordered by then defense secretary Bob Ainsworth, after high court judges found that the MoD had made “serious breaches” of its duty.

An Iraqi boy stops his bicycle next to British soldiers as they secure the area at the site where a roadside bomb targeted their patrol in the southern city of Basra, 21 January 2007. (AFP Photo / Essam Al-Sudani)

Furthermore, British Foreign Minister William Hague has written a private memo to other ministers on March 1, urging them not to discuss Iraq and its legality in the run-up to the tenth anniversary of the NATO-led invasion.

Investigators have faced problems trying to access MoD documents concerning events covering the battle of Danny Boy and at Camp Abu Naj.

In 2010 investigators found in files of the Royal Military Police  a number of relevant papers which had been entirely absent from evidence disclosed by the MoD in previous court proceedings. While another 9 files were handed over by the MoD in 2011, a six week search by investigators of MoD archives found 600 documents that were relevant to the case.

Last week the inquiry was still waiting to receive emails from the MoD about a visit to the Shaibah base by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

The inquiry has already cost the taxpayer £15 million and that is expected to double. Up to 200 military witnesses will be called and 45 Iraqis will give evidence through a video link from Beirut.