February 1, 2008 / 1:49 PM / 12 years ago

UK troops accused of "off-the-scale" abuse in Iraq

LONDON (Reuters) - A lawyer representing nine Iraqi civilians accused British troops on Friday of “off the scale” torture and abuse in Iraq, and Britain’s Ministry of Defence said it was re-investigating the case.

The allegations concern events that took place in the southern Iraqi town of Majar-al-Kabir on May 14, 2004, when British forces fought an intense gun battle with insurgents.

The Ministry of Defence says that around 28 Iraqis were killed in the fighting and that nine others were detained.

But lawyers, basing their evidence on witness statements, death certificates and video footage shot by relatives of the victims, allege that 22 people were killed while in British custody and that nine survived torture and abuse.

“This incident, if proven, is off the scale for abuse committed by either British or American troops serving in Iraq,” lawyer Phil Shiner told Reuters.

“If these harrowing allegations are proven, then you’d be pushed to be able to put it in context — it would be the worst conduct by the British army in the last 100 years.”

Britain’s Military Police conducted an investigation in 2004 into the allegations, first made by the victims’ families, but found “no evidence of wrongful deaths in custody, torture or mutilation of bodies,” an MoD spokesman said on Friday.

But following a request by the families for a judicial review, another Military Police investigation has since been launched, the MoD said. That inquiry, which covers “essentially the same ground”, was launched in December, the MoD said. It is not known when it will be completed.

“SHOCKING ALLEGATIONS”

Shiner and partner Martyn Day, who have brought several cases on behalf of Iraqis against the British government, said they had recently taken testimony from five Iraqi men connected to the case and been stunned by the allegations made.

Among the claims are that bodies had their eyes gouged out and that victims were asphyxiated, hanged or had their genitals beaten, according to the Guardian newspaper. Shiner confirmed to Reuters those abuses were among the allegations.

A gag order preventing details of the alleged abuse being reported was lifted by a judge in the British High Court on Thursday. The judge said the Ministry of Defence could not try to stop the media reporting the allegations.

Shiner said that in 60 years of accumulated legal practice, he and Day had never heard such harrowing accounts. However, asked for more details from the witness statements, Shiner said they were still being checked for errors or omissions.

“The allegations made are so shocking that we need to be absolutely certain that we’ve covered every angle,” he said.

The statements are expected to be released in “two to three weeks’ time”, in conjunction with a BBC documentary on the case.

Court proceedings will likely follow, with the High Court expected to hear a demand for an independent inquiry in April.

British troops have repeatedly been accused of torture and abuse of detainees in Iraq.

A total of 21 British soldiers and officers have been court-martialled in separate cases involving the deaths of four Iraqis. Only one soldier has been convicted. He pleaded guilty to inhumane treatment.

Editing by David Clarke and Jon Boyle

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