Ministry of Defence accused of 'buying silence of families' over civilian deaths

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The Independent Online

The Ministry of Defence has been accused of "buying off" families of Iraqi civilians in whose deaths British troops have been involved by making them sign waivers in exchange for compensation payments and "charitable donations".

The Ministry of Defence has been accused of "buying off" families of Iraqi civilians in whose deaths British troops have been involved by making them sign waivers in exchange for compensation payments and "charitable donations".

Figures released to The Independent on Sunday by the MoD last week reveal that so far $14,000 (£7,600) has been paid in official compensation for incidents including deaths in military custody as well as shootings during demonstrations. But the MoD also admits paying "charitable donations" of $24,350 to families up to 13 March this year, the latest figure available.

The "donations" are described as ad hoc payments to cover funeral expenses and help with hardship, but - as with official compensation - the recipient must sign a declaration accepting the money as "full and final settlement". Both types of payment come with an apology, but no admission of guilt or liability.

A senior researcher at Amnesty International, who interviewed families in Basra in March, said: "There could be more fatalities than those on the public record, because families have accepted these payments."

Calling the system "a buy-off" and "contrary to natural justice", the Liberal Democrat Defence spokesman, Paul Keetch, said: "They have to sign a form saying ... they won't take any further action against the British government. We need a proper system that can identify what's gone wrong."

Amnesty International has made similar complaints, and wants the MoD to provide more information on what the payments cover. There are accusations that the pay-offs are being abused to silence victims' families, particularly those judged powerful enough to exact revenge.

Although no British troops have yet been charged over Iraqi civilian deaths, the MoD confirmed that eight prosecutions are pending against British soldiers, five of which involve deaths. One is the case of Baha Mousa, the Basra hotel receptionist allegedly kicked to death last September by members of the Queen's Lancashire Regiment, revealed in the IoS in January.

The Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, also announced last week that four members of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers would be tried at a court martial. The case centres on photographs which are said to show Iraqi inmates being forced to perform sexual acts on each other, and a naked prisoner, bound and gagged, suspended in a net from a forklift truck.

An Amnesty official said the "going rate" for a death appeared to be about $1,400. But after the death of Baha Mousa, whose father is an Iraqi police colonel, the family was offered much more. "In the Baha Mousa case [a] British military official apologised and gave his father, Col Mousa, $3,000 and said he would make subsequent payments," said the official. "He then offered Col Mousa another $5,000, saying it would be the final payment. But Col Mousa refused to accept this. The military were hoping the family would not take it any further. The other people were only given $2,000 or $1,500. Col Mousa was offered $8,000 because his case got a lot of publicity and he is a senior police officer."

Phil Shiner, a Birmingham lawyer bringing several cases against the MoD on behalf of Iraqi civilians, said: "There's an element [of buying people off] if you look at the efforts that were made with Col Mousa. When they offered him a lot more, they were definitely getting him to sign away his rights. They knew, it seems, that Mousa had them bang to rights, and they were trying to shut him up."

If it was an attempt to silence him, it failed - Col Mousa is expected to travel to Britain early next month to attend a High Court action brought against the MoD.

The compensation payments issue will be discussed at a meeting of Britain's leading human rights lawyers next month. In a development that will worry ministers, figures such as Gareth Peirce, Louise Christian, who handled the cases of Camp X-Ray Britons, and Imran Khan, who handled the Stephen Lawrence case, are preparing to mount "well-aimed legal challenges" to the British compensation and justice system in Iraq. Amnesty also alleges that the official claims procedure is difficult and complicated.

In a report last month, it said: "Many families whose relatives have been killed by UK forces are not advised of the procedures for applying for compensation. In several cases UK forces provided wrong information, suggesting families can only apply for compensation from a future Iraqi government or determining themselves that compensation is not payable."

An MoD spokesman said the armed forces minister, Adam Ingram, would provide a comprehensive response to Amnesty's allegations "in the near future".