Army victims’ lawyer ‘had death threats’

MoD accused of waging 'black propaganda' campaign against human rights activists
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The Independent Online

Police are investigating death threats made against a British human rights lawyer who claims to be the victim of a hate campaign stirred up by the Ministry of Defence. It is the second time in two days that the MoD has been blamed for "black propaganda" against human rights activists.

Phil Shiner, the lawyer representing the family of Baha Mousa, who was beaten to death by British soldiers, says he has received hate mail and phone calls abusing him and calling for his execution. Mr Shiner accuses the Government of helping British newspapers to carry stories vilifying him for taking cases against the British Army.

Yesterday, Rachel Reid, from Human Rights Watch, claimed the Government put her life at risk by allegedly linking her to an Army officer accused of leaking civilian casualty figures. Ms Reid, a researcher based in Afghanistan, was named this week in connection with the arrest of Lt-Col Owen McNally in Afghanistan under the Official Secrets Act. Reports claimed that the Army officer passed the Human Rights Watch worker classified information about Afghan civilian casualties in military operations. Some reports alleged that Lt-Col McNally and Ms Reid had a "close" relationship. Yesterday she said she wanted to know "why my government might want to see my reputation dragged through the mud, when I live in a country where a woman's reputation can mean her life".

Mr Shiner alleges that the MoD secretly briefed journalists at The Sun and Daily Mail which carried stories accusing him of exploiting the legal aid system to line his own pockets. He has also asked a European human rights watchdog to investigate the death threats and alleged role of the MoD in their dealings with the press.

Mr Shiner, of Public Interest Lawyers, is acting in a series of cases focusing on deaths and torture in UK facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan including the death of Mr Mousa in Basra six years ago. His torture and subsequent death is now the subject of a public inquiry chaired by Sir William Gage.

Mr Shiner said last night: "The MoD face a long line of cases that threaten to expose their own civil servants, among others, who have attempted to cover up what UK soldiers did to Iraqis in detention facilities while the UK occupied south-east Iraq. Their response recently, knowing that ultimately these cases will hold those responsible to account, has been to whip up hostile press attention focusing on my role as a human rights lawyer acting in these cases under the legal aid system.

"As a result my life has been threatened and, as some of these threats emanate from the suburbs of Birmingham where my children live, I am very concerned for their welfare too. I call on the MoD to stop this behaviour and I say for the record that if anything happens to me, my family or my staff, it will be held entirely responsible".

A spokesman for the MoD denied being involved in any "black propaganda" campaign and said the allegations appeared "incredible".

The MoD made further specific denials about the Rachel Reid allegations. Nick Gurr, director general of media and communication at the Ministry of Defence, said: "I have no idea how Rachel Reid has gained the impression that her name was passed to the media by the Ministry of Defence. But I can assure you and your readers that it is not true. We are not in the business of dragging anyone's 'reputation through the mud'."