Army chief: 'Warnings over Iraqi civilian deaths were ignored'

Attempts to apply Geneva Convention to prisoners were met 'by resistance at every level... both political and legal'
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The Independent Online

An army legal chief raised concerns about deaths of civilian prisoners in Iraq at the hands of British troops as long ago as May 2003, but was repeatedly ignored "at all levels" of the Government and military, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.

The latest damning revelations were made in a written communication between one of the Army's most senior legal officials and his colleagues. In May 2003, just weeks after the war ended, Lieutenant Colonel Nicholas Mercer, then chief legal adviser to the First Armoured Division, wrote expressing his concern that "there have recently been a number of deaths in custody where Iraqi civilians have died whilst being held by various units in theatre".

This was four months before the now well-documented killing of hotel worker Baha Mousa, 26, who was beaten to death in September 2003, and a year before the alleged execution of 20 prisoners by British troops, outlined at a press conference on Friday.

The MoD said that Lt Col Mercer was referring to two cases, both of which were deaths by natural causes.

While giving evidence to the court martial into the Baha Mousa case – in which six soldiers were acquitted and one was jailed for a year – Lt Col Mercer added that the period of most concern was between the point of arrest and drop-off at a detention facility, ie while prisoners were in transit.

He also said that attempts to put into place a detention policy based on one praised by the UN in East Timor, overseen by a UK judge, were "consistently blocked". And he added that he met "resistance" to his argument that the Geneva Convention should apply to prisoners, "at every level... both political and legal".

This week, lawyers acting for the family of Kareem Jabber Ali, a 16-year-old boy who drowned in May 2003 after allegedly being forced to swim a canal by British troops, will be seeking damages in the High Court. Three soldiers were cleared of manslaughter in the case.

An MoD spokeswoman said that allegations of the massacre outlined on Friday had been investigated and no evidence of such killings had been found. She added that an investigation by Brigadier Robert Aitken, who reported last month, found that there was no systemic abuse by British troops in Iraq. In respect of the Baha Mousa case, she said: "The Defence Secretary has agreed to receive representations from the legal representatives for Mr Mousa's family, and will make a further statement."

She also pointed out that 120,000 troops had served in Iraq and there had been only a handful of allegations of abuse.