Iraqis take UK military to court over 'systematic' abuses

Legal team representing 192 Iraqi civilians puts clients' claims of sexual and religious mistreatment to the high court in London, reports Omar Karmi

LONDON // A London court is hearing evidence that British soldiers systematically and deliberately abused more than 1,000 civilians over nearly six years in Iraq in what are some of the worst human-rights-abuse accusations to have been levelled against the United Kingdom.

The legal team representing 192 Iraqis made their opening arguments yesterday in a case in which they will try to convince the High Court in London that the alleged abuse, between 2003 and 2009, was a common and widespread practice that proves "systemic issues" and justifies a public inquiry.

Lawyers will also try to show that the existing mechanism to investigate such abuses by Britain's ministry of defence is not sufficiently independent.

According to Phil Shiner, of Public Interest Lawyers, the firm representing the Iraqis, another 871 Iraqis are waiting to come forward and there are "tens of thousands of allegations".

They range from accusations of unlawful killing, sexual abuse, food, water and sleep deprivation to mock executions, religious abuse and abuse by dogs.

Many of the allegations to be presented before the court are "truly shocking", Mr Shiner said, and it would "not be misleading" to compare them to what took place at Abu Ghraib, the infamous US military prison where soldiers were found guilty of having sexually abused and mistreated Iraqi prisoners.

"We went into Iraq with the US, and everything they were doing we were doing," Mr Shiner told journalists outside the High Court yesterday ahead of the first day of the hearing.

"The abuse of the Quran, the use of dogs, the sexual techniques, the sleep deprivation, the techniques to debase people sexually, it's all very much of a piece with what the US was up to."

Inside Court Three at London's Royal Courts of Justice, meanwhile, the two High Court judges presiding over the case will - over the three-day hearing - have to determine whether lawyers can present enough evidence that the British military was engaged in systemic abuse.

They will also have to decide whether the British government's own investigation mechanism - the defence ministry's Iraq Historic Allegations Team (Ihat) set up in 2010 - is equipped to investigate such abuse, or whether it is not designed to investigate systemic issues, as Michael Fordham, the lead trial lawyer, argued at yesterday's opening hearing, thus necessitating a public investigation.

Ihat is comprised of members of the Royal Military Police and other members of the military and has been dogged by accusations that it is not independent enough to properly investigate allegations of abuse.

In December, the High Court heard allegations by a former investigator that Ihat amounted to nothing more than a "face-saving exercise" for the British government.

Lawyers for the ministry of defence will argue that the latest allegations are unproven and that Ihat is an adequate mechanism for investigating individual claims of abuse.

The ministry rejects suggestions of systematic abuse. The UK government has, however, agreed about 200 settlements with alleged victims who took their cases to British courts and to Ihat, at a total cost of £15 million (Dh86.9m).

Lawyers for the Iraqi complainants say they have evidence that some of the abuse was taught as interrogation practice at a military installation at Chicksands, north of London. The British military in Iraq had in effect ignored laws passed in the UK in 1971, Mr Shiner said, which prohibit certain interrogation techniques, including hooding and stress positions - where a prisoner is forced to maintain an uncomfortable position for extended periods.

Yesterday, the court heard the first of what lawyers say are 38 cases of unlawful killings, including that of an eight-year-old girl shot dead in the street while playing with friends, a grandmother who was abused and later "turned up in a body bag", a man shot dead while queuing for petrol and another who was hooded and abused in front of his son and whose subsequent death was officially blamed on "natural causes".

The case is ultimately about "getting to the truth", Mr Fordham said in his opening statement. It is about finding out "what really happened, why it happened, and what context it happened in".

It is important, Mr Shiner said earlier, "because it's about accountability for state practices that are unlawful in all sorts of ways, very serious and, at heart, war crimes".

"And it's important because it sends a message to the rest of the world that we are a democracy and ultimately we will, I hope, follow the law."

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