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The end of the al-Sweady inquiry?

Guest post by Sackcloth & Ashes

Thursday’s Guardian reported that the case pursued by Public Interest Lawyers, Phil Shiner’s legal firm, against the Ministry of Defence over an alleged war-crime committed by British troops in Iraq has ’stalled’. The case referred to the aftermath of a confrontation between British forces and insurgents from the Mahdi Army dubbed ‘the Battle of Danny Boy’, which took place near a check-point south of Al-Amarah on 14th May 2004. After the battle, Iraqi civilians alleged that survivors from the firefight were taken back to Abu Naji, the main British military base in Maysan province, and tortured to death by soldiers from the 1st Battalion the Princess of Wales’ Royal Regiment (1PWRR).

In their most recent statement, PIL have admitted that ‘[following] the conclusion of the military evidence and current state of disclosure by the MoD it is our view there is insufficient material to establish that Iraqi civilians were unlawfully killed whilst in the custody of British troops at Camp Abu Naji’. In other words, there is nothing whatsoever to verify the claims – which were also echoed by The Independent and the BBC documentary Panorama – that 1PWRR were responsible for a truly shocking crime against humanity which makes Camp Breadbasket and the murder of Baha Mousa look like minor infractions. A case that has cost the UK taxpayer £22m is on the verge of collapse.

I do not believe that the British armed forces should be immune from any scrutiny, either for domestic abuses (such as Deepcut) or reported ones on overseas operations (notably the recent murder conviction for a Royal Marine sergeant who executed a wounded Talib in cold blood). Yet for the life of me I cannot see why this case was brought to trial in the first place. PIL’s allegations rested firstly on the testimony of relatives of the deceased, and secondly on Iraqis captured on the battlefield who were subsequently released. The former may have genuinely believed that their next of kin were foully done to death, but no one seems to have pointed out the obvious disconnection between the atrocities supposedly inflicted on the dead, and the fact that some captives were released to tell the tale. If 1PWRR had committed such a barbaric murder of detainees, why didn’t they kill the lot?

On the injuries found on the insurgents’ bodies, no one seems to have wondered whether the wounds attributed to mutilation in custody might perhaps have been inflicted during a fierce firefight in which bayonets, grenades, rifle fire and even the main armament of a Warrior armoured vehicle were employed (against insurgents armed with Kalashnikovs and RPGs). What is also striking is that if PIL’s allegations had been true then every soldier in 1PWRR – including the chaplain and the medics – would have been complicit either in the atrocities committed, or in covering them up. For such an abuse on that scale, the plausibility of this story should surely have been questioned by the MoD from the start.

Above all, perhaps it is time for all the British media outlets who reported this case and uncritically relayed PIL’s allegations to ask hard questions about their own standards of journalism, and to apologise to the soldiers of 1PWRR for conveying a slander against them collectively.