Britain on trial for Iraqis killed by its troops

Should Britain pay compensation to the families of Iraqis killed by its troops? Terri Judd and Severin Carrell report on a crucial test case
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The Independent Online

The families of 13 Iraqis allegedly killed by British soldiers since the start of Iraq's occupation 10 months ago are planning to seek compensation through the High Court.

In a case that could have wide-ranging implications, lawyers for the group have written to Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, demanding that he order an inquiry into the "unlawful killings", accept liability and establish a compensation scheme. Phil Shiner, a human rights lawyer acting for the group, said: "If the Government does not concede all three points by next week I shall lodge papers immediately [in the High Court] for a judicial review." A dossier seen by The Independent outlines 12 of the cases, including a 13-year-old boy who was killed by a cluster bomb, a housewife gunned down as she ate supper with her family and a 65-year-old farmer who was shot as he tried to fix a water pump.

In at least two instances the army appeared to acknowledge that the victims were shot by mistake. In the case of Muhammad Abdul Ridha Salim, a 45-year-old teacher who was killed after soldiers burst into his brother-in-law's house, an army major acknowledged that the "British forces were deliberately misled" by an anonymous tip-off.

In addition to the 12 cases in the dossier, the same legal team, including Rabinder Singh, a QC from Cherie Blair's Matrix Chambers, is representing Baha Mousa, who died within days of being detained by British forces. The 26-year-old's father, Daoud Mousa, a police colonel, claimed his son's body was bloodied and bruised when he went to identify it. Mr Singh, who headed a legal challenge to the war in Iraq before the conflict, said he was confident the European Convention on Human Rights could apply to the actions of British troops.

While the Ministry of Defence has not accepted liability for any of the deaths, a number of the victims have received "ex-gratia" payments, described as "derisory" by some of those representing the Iraqis. Mr Shiner said: "It is a shock to discover that British troops have caused the deaths of so many innocent Iraqis since our occupation began on 2 May 2003. It is a class action. If we establish the principles in our judicial review, it will affect everybody who has suffered through killings of loved ones, or injuries or loss of property."

Mr Shiner, of Public Interest Lawyers, said any inquiry should look into whether preparations for war and the subsequent occupation were sufficient. He said the case had profoundly important implications because British forces had allegedly killed more Iraqis since the occupation began, and that inadequate planning might be to blame.

Mr Shiner, who initially sought to investigate the impact of leftover cluster bombs on youngsters, came across the cases during his investigations. No British soldier has been suspended from duty over such matters since May 2003. To date, £15,375 has been paid in compensation to the families of 23 alleged fatalities involving British forces. Eighteen cases have been investigated, eight of which are ongoing.

The dead Iraqis - and the claims made by their families

Hazim Jum'AA Gatteh al-Skeini

Hazim Jum'AA Gatteh al-Skeini was killed as he and his family gathered for the funeral of another villager.

As he walked towards the house, he came across a soldier in the dark. In the barrage of fire which ensued, Mr al-Skeini, 23, was shot in the stomach in front of his family and died almost instantly. Another man, Abed Abdul Kareem Hassan, was also killed.

Within two weeks, Lieutenant Colonel Ciaran Griffin, commanding officer of the 1st Battalion, the King's Regiment, wrote to their tribe, the Beni Skein, acknowledging responsibility, great regret at the "misunderstanding" and offering a donation of £540 to the family.

His men, he wrote, had mistaken the sound of shooting around the funeral in Basra Haaritha on the night of 4 August 2003 for a gun battle.

"The patrol encountered two men, who appeared to be armed and a direct threat to their lives, so they opened fire and killed them," he said. "In retrospect it became clear that the heavy shooting in Al Majidiyah was in sympathy for the funeral of a local man and that the two men who were shot by the British patrol had not intended to attack anyone."

While Mazin Jum'aa Gatteh al-Skeini insists his brother was unarmed, Lt-Col Griffin claimed that the men were acting illegally by carrying weapons in the street. "My family and I are in shock and very upset about the loss of my brother and we need to establish the truth about this, and other killings, by British forces," Mr Skeini said.

Ahmed Jabbar Karim Ali, 17

Ahmed Jabbar Karim Ali drowned after being forced to swim across a river despite injuries from a beating.

His family insist that Mr Karim Ali, 17, was walking to work with his brother through Basra on 8 May when a British tank opened fire. He ran for cover but was arrested along with a group of Iraqis. As the soldiers took him and several injured captives to hospital for treatment, his family claim that he was beaten by the British forces. At the bank of the River Zubair he was ordered to swim across but, weakened by the beating, he floundered. The teenager was dead when he was pulled from the river.

"I am distraught about the events that led to my son's death. As a parent my feelings are deeply hurt and I am suffering from great sadness," wrote his father, Jabbar Karim Ali.

Muhammad Abdul Ridha Salim, 45

Muhammad Abdul Ridha Salim was visiting his brother-in-law late one night in the month of Ramadan when, it is claimed, British soldiers burst into the house.

Believing the intruders were criminals, the 45-year-old teacher rushed down the stairs only to come face to face with a soldier.

He was shot in the stomach. As the house owner Mahmood Sabun's wife screamed and pleaded with the soldier to stop, she was bungled into a side room, the dossier claimed. Mr Salim died later in hospital. Major S Routledge, officer commanding C Company, 1st Battalion, the King's Regiment, wrote to Mr Sabun acknowledging the raid just before midnight on 5 November was a mistake. His men had received an anonymous tip-off that 10 men, armed with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, were gathering at the house in Al Andalus, Basra.

"It appears that the British Forces were deliberately misled on this occasion and it is regrettable that this incident led to the death. We extend our sympathies to his family," the officer added.

Mr Salim's wife, Fatima Zabun Dahesh, said: "All those present at the incident are completely shocked and horrified at the events.

"They have no idea why their home was targeted and refer to the experience as indescribable. I am still in a state of shock."

Waleed Fayayi Muzban, 43

Waleed Fayayi Muzban was driving home from work in his minibus when a barrage of bullets were fired at the vehicle.

The 43-year-old Iraqi was taken to an army hospital but died the following day from wounds to his chest and stomach.

The dossier claims that countless people in the residential street in Al Maaqil, Basra, saw the British soldiers shoot.

The family claimed that later they tried to retrieve the vehicle, which had been impounded by the army, because their livelihood depended on it. However, they said the British army tried to buy it from them instead.

"[A soldier] informed us that the vehicle was hit from behind and that it had bullet holes and this would adversely affect their legal position," said the dead man's brother, Fadil Fayayi Muzban.

The family said that it had received £540 in compensation, but Mr Muzban claims: "Much of this is forged notes and I do not know whether it was for the loss of the vehicle or the death of my brother."

Hanan Shmailawi, 33

Hanan Shmailawi was sitting down to supper with her husband and children on 10 November when shots were suddenly fired into the room, the dossier claims. Before the night porter could do anything to protect his wife, she was shot in the head and legs.

She was rushed to hospital by the soldiers but died later that night. A group of Halcore engineers revealed that the soldiers from C Company, 1st Battalion, the King's Regiment, had been on the roof of one of the buildings in the Institute of Education complex in Al Maaqal, Basra when they asked if there was a night guard and if he was armed. They were told where he lived and that he had permission to carry weapons. "Those present were terrified and could not understand why British soldiers would fire into our home," wrote her husband, Hameed Abdul Rida Awaid Kareem.

Jaafer Hashim Majeed, 13

Jaafer Hashim Majeed was playing in the street outside his Basra home when he came across an unexploded cluster bomb.

As his father and neighbours in Basra Haaritha looked on, the sub-munition exploded, injuring the 13-year-old so severely that he died before arriving at hospital. "I do not know whether my son picked up the sub-munition or whether it simply went off when he was close by," said his father, Hasheem Majeed Awdeh.

Raid Hadi al-Musawi, 29

Raid Hadi Al Musawi was going about his usual duties as a policeman, carrying a box of "suggestions and complaints" to a local judge's house.

The 29-year-old stopped off for supper at home before heading off to make his delivery. But, as he returned, a British armoured vehicle patrolling in Basra passed by and shot at him, it is claimed. He died 10 days later on 6 November.

Lafteh Ahmed Awdeh, 22

Lafteh Ahmed Awdeh was killed by an army vehicle which drove off leaving the young man by the side of the road.

The 22-year-old farmer and his father were working in fields near the village of Al Zariji on 4 September when a column of British Army vehicles came down a road which cut across the agricultural land.

As the driver of a truck tried to negotiate a ditch, he misjudged it and hit Mr Awdeh.

With his father just feet away, the young man was thrown into the air and killed instantly.

"The truck that hit him sped away and the rest of the column of vehicles just followed," said his father Ahmed Awdeh, who never reported the matter to the authorities.

Kasber Farhoud Jasim

Kasber Farhoud Jasim was fishing with a small group when he was shot in the head by a passing British river patrol. His brother who was with him in the boat on the night of 3 June said they were gathering in their net when the patrol approached.

"Abruptly my brother fell into the river. I shouted out his name but there was no response. At first I thought my brother had merely lost his balance, but very shortly realised he had been shot," said Abdullah Farhoud Jasim.

Some of the fishermen wanted to fire back at the British patrol but were stopped by Mr Jasim's cousin. Using lanterns the men searched for the young man in the river near Madrassa Furat, al-Karneh, and eventually pulled him from the water. He had a bullet wound to the head.

Abbas Kuhdayar Gatteh, 28

Abbas Kuhdayar Gatteh was at home with his family when British soldiers burst in and shot him, the dossier claims.

His brother Jasim Khudayr Gatteh al-Helfawi said he had been preparing for pre-dawn prayer at the house in Abi al-Khusaib on 6 May when he heard the front door being broken down. Mr Gatteh, he said, was searching for a weapon when the soldiers fired, killing the 28-year-old instantly.

His brother said: "Members of my family were stunned and horrified by what happened. We were shocked at the unprovoked and forced entry into our home.

"We tried to make a complaint but were prevented by the local authority and the occupying authority."

Baha Ahmed al-Awari, 23

Baha Ahmed al-Awari was watching a protest when soldiers opened fire and he was hit, it is alleged. A guard at the local school in Hayaniya, Mr Awari was standing by the building as the crowd of protesters became increasingly enraged. "The soldiers opened fire directly at the crowd in an attempt to disperse them and in the same area as my brother stood. He was shot in the chest and stomach," his brother Harith Ahmed al-Awari explained. Amid the ensuing chaos, the 23-year-old lay injured and it was not until his family discovered what had happened that he was taken to hospital. He was dead before he arrived. Mr Awari said: "My brother was an innocent bystander and the British Army should take responsibility for his death."

Riyadh Turki Taha Yaseen, 65

Riyadh Turki Taha Yaseen was working late at night trying to restart the water pump on their farm. As the 65-year-old wandered off to collect more tools, patrolling soldiers mistook the hammer in his hand for a weapon. With his son just feet away, the farmer was shot and killed. After describing the shooting near Nashwa, Basra, on 8 July, his son Ahmed Riyadh Turki Taha said: "I want an investigation into how my father was killed."