British soldiers mistreated nine Iraqi detainees after an ambush but allegations that they murdered and tortured prisoners were “the product of deliberate lies, reckless speculation and ingrained hostility”, a public inquiry has found.
The Al-Sweady Inquiry into the aftermath of a gun battle between British troops and Iraqi insurgents in May 2004 found that some soldiers had breached the Geneva convention in their conduct towards prisoners, including depriving them of food and sleep.
But the 1,300-page final report of the £31m inquiry, led by former High Court judge Sir Thayne Forbes, said the infringements had to be seen in “their proper perspective” when compared to the claims of mutilation and torture, which it had found to be “without foundation”.
The conclusions brought an angry response from Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, who demanded that lawyers acting for the detainees should apologise for pursuing “false allegations “ of abuse.
Sir Thayne said the allegations that live prisoners had been brutalised, mutilated and murdered following the Battle of Danny Boy near Al Amarah in southern Iraq had been shown to be “wholly and entirely without merit or justification”.
In a swingeing summation, the former judge said it was clear some Iraqi witnesses had told “deliberate and calculated lies” and in particular the approach of nine detainees to giving evidence had been “wholly without regard for the truth”.
Mr Fallon said that lawyers for the detainees had been too slow to accept that the core allegations of murder and torture, which caused the inquiry to be set up, were baseless. The claims were withdrawn in March this year.
He told BBC Radio 4’s World At One: “It was not until very late in the day that the lawyers for the detainees accepted that these allegations weren’t true.
“Had they accepted that and conceded that much earlier, a great deal of money might have been saved.”
The Solicitors Regulation Authority has confirmed it is investigating two law firms – Leigh Day and Public Interest Lawyers – in relation to the case.
The inquiry was established in 2009 after a judicial review criticised “lamentable” document disclosure by the Ministry of Defence regarding the Iraqi complaints.
The subsequent investigation focused on the actions of soldiers from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment after they were ambushed by members of a Shia militia know as the the Mahdi Army.
Some 28 Iraqis were killed in the ensuing three-hour battle on 14 May 2004, which was fought around a British checkpoint known by the codename Danny Boy.
In the aftermath of the fighting an unusual order was given for the bodies of some 20 of the Iraqi dead to be collected from the battlefield to establish whether a senior insurgent, implicated in the murder of six Royal Military Police in a nearby town 11 months earlier, was one of those killed.
The battle raged around a British checkpoint known by the codename Danny Boy.
When the bodies of the Iraqi fighters were returned to relatives the following day “rumours, stories and speculation” began to circulate that several of the dead men had been alive at the time of their capture and subsequently brutalised and killed by their British captors at the Camp Abu Naji base.
The inquiry was named after 19-year-old Hamid al-Sweady, one of the dead fighters whom it was claimed had been alive when captured.
Sir Thayne said that the evidence had shown this allegation was perhaps “the most significant lie of many” and the British forces had for the most part with “exemplary professionalism”.
The report found that in some cases the conduct of British personnel had fallen below required standards and result in “actual or possible ill-treatment”.
The actions criticised included a lack of privacy during strip searches, sleep deprivation prior to questioning and the prolonged use of “black-out goggles”.
One incident of ill-treatment involved a military interrogator banging a metal tent peg on a table, walking silently around the blindfolded detainee and then blowing on the back of his neck to startle him.
But the report said numerous other complaints of savage beatings and executions had been shown to be inventions. It said: “Very many of those baseless allegations were the product of deliberate and calculated lies.”
Sir Thayne made nine recommendations for improvement in military procedures and MoD record keeping.
Lawyers for the detainees defended their actions, saying the inquiry had been “legally necessary, morally justified and politically required”.
In a statement, Public Interest Lawyers said: “Until the evidence was complete the families of the deceased had a genuine belief that mutilation, torture and murder of their loved ones had occurred. We are delighted that the families no longer have this cloud of uncertainty hanging over their heads.”Reuse content