After £14 million and three years of delays, the biggest inquiry into soldier abuse allegations announced its start date today.
The Al Sweady Inquiry into allegations that soldiers killed and tortured Iraqi detainees in 2004 will start in March next year. Due to last almost a year and cost £25 million, it is expected to examine evidence from 498 military witnesses and 97 Iraqis, many of whom will be flown to Britain to give evidence in person.
Fears of another costly delay were averted at the last minute when lawyers for the Iraqis explained they had received eleventh hour assurances that evidence was available from key military witnesses.
The inquiry was ordered in 2009 after then defence secretary Bob Ainsworth conceded the need for a fresh investigation into allegations, vigorously denied by the army, that soldiers killed up to 20 detainees, including 19-year-old Hamid Al Sweady, after a bloody fire fight with Shia insurgents in what became known as the battle of Danny Boy near Majar-al-Kabir on 14 May 2004. Nine more claim they were tortured after being taken to a detention centre at Shaibah base near Basrah, where they were held for four months.
Over the past three years there have been accusations and counter claims of both sides failing to disclose statements in time. Today the hearing was told that oral evidence from the Iraqis would start in March with military witness beginning six months later.
Addressing the inquiry chairman, retired High Court judge Sir Thayne Forbes, today, Jonathan Acton Davis QC, lead counsel to the inquiry, said: “This far almost £14.5 million of British tax payers’ pounds have been spent. This hearing can be assured that I shall keep the start date in review but the time has come, in our submission, when you should fix a start date for 4th March.”