MoD warned to co-operate with Iraq abuse inquiry

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Defence officials will be forced to disclose documents and provide witnesses if they do not co-operate with a new public inquiry into Iraqi abuse claims, a retired senior judge said today.

The Al-Sweady Inquiry is looking into allegations that British soldiers murdered and tortured Iraqi civilians in the aftermath of the "Battle of Danny Boy" in southern Iraq in 2004.

It will report on claims that 20 or more Iraqis were unlawfully killed and others ill-treated at a UK base in Maysan Province called Camp Abu Naji.

A team headed by a former top Scotland Yard murder detective has been appointed to carry out a "police-style investigation" into the allegations and interview witnesses.

Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth announced the inquiry after admitting there had been "failures" in the Ministry of Defence's disclosure of documents to lawyers for some of the alleged victims.

Inquiry chairman Sir Thayne Forbes, a former High Court judge, warned in an opening statement today that he expected full assistance from the British authorities.

He said: "The inquiry hopes and expects to receive co-operation from all persons or organisations with relevant material or evidence, including in particular all agencies of Government and the state.

"However, should that co-operation not be forthcoming, the inquiry will not hesitate to use its compulsory powers in relation to the production of documents and the attendance of witnesses to give evidence should it decide that such use is required for the effective discharge of its duties of fairness, thoroughness and impartiality."

Leading counsel to the inquiry, Jonathan Acton Davis QC, revealed that the MoD has already provided more than 8,000 documents about the case.

These have been put on a computer system like that used to manage evidence in the inquest into the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

The team of four investigators, all retired police officers, appointed to help the inquiry is headed by former detective chief superintendent Stephen Condon.

Mr Condon led one of Scotland Yard's murder squads and was an adviser to the defence team that got former Kosovan prime minister Ramush Haradinaj cleared of war crimes charges in April 2008.

He and his unit are unlikely to visit Iraq because of security concerns and will probably have to interview Iraqi witnesses in a neighbouring country, inquiry secretary Lee Hughes said.

Stressing that the inquiry was at a very early stage, Sir Thayne appealed for people to help with the investigation.

"I would ask that anyone who has any relevant information to contribute should provide it as soon as possible to the inquiry solicitor," he said.

"Anyone who has any suggestions to make about a possible line of inquiry is also asked to do the same, as soon as possible."

The chairman also noted that he did not have powers to make any findings of criminal or civil liability.

And he warned: "I do not expect any lawyer who appears before me to be running a case."

No decision has been made on whether witnesses to the inquiry will be granted immunity from prosecution based on their own evidence. This will be a decision for the Attorney General.

Mr Acton Davis said he hoped to make an opening statement about the evidence in the inquiry by the end of this year.

The inquiry is named after 19-year-old Hamid Al-Sweady, one of those who died following a firefight between UK soldiers and Iraqi insurgents at a checkpoint known as "Danny Boy" on May 14 2004.

It was launched as a result of a High Court legal battle against the MoD by Mr Al-Sweady's uncle and five Iraqis who say they were abused by British troops after the battle.

The MoD was severely criticised by the judges in the case, who said the department's handling of disclosure of documents had been "lamentable".

The inquiry's terms of reference cover investigating and reporting on allegations against British soldiers of unlawful killing at Camp Abu Naji on May 14 and 15 2004, and of ill-treatment of five Iraqis between May 14 and September 23 2004.

Sir Thayne - who was the judge in the trial of serial killer Dr Harold Shipman - is asked to take account of the investigations which have already taken place and make recommendations.

The MoD vigorously denies the allegations and says those who died were killed on the battlefield.

Another public inquiry is already under way into allegations that British troops beat to death Iraqi hotel worker Baha Mousa in Basra, southern Iraq, in September 2003.

Last week Armed Forces Minister Bill Rammell announced that a dedicated unit would be set up to examine other allegations of abuse by British military personnel in Iraq.

But he rejected calls by legal firm Public Interest Lawyers, which is representing scores of alleged victims, for a wide-ranging third public inquiry into the claims.