Soldiers who refuse to serve in Iraq could face life imprisonment under controversial plans to reform the existing system of courts martial.
Campaigners for justice in the armed forces claimed yesterday that the Government was clamping down on dissent because of the growing opposition to the war. Flight-Lieutenant Malcolm Kendall-Smith was jailed for eight months by a court martial for refusing to serve in Iraq, but campaigners said the Armed Forces Bill will open so-called "refuseniks" to a life sentence.
Rebel anti-war Labour MPs tabled an amendment to the Bill's final stages this week to remove the clause which they claim could lead to life imprisonment. They propose replacing life imprisonment for desertion with a maximum of two years in jail.
John McDonnell, chairman of the left-wing Campaign Group of Labour MPs, said: "These new provisions are a heavy-handed attempt to intimidate those in the armed forces who out of conscience might object to participating in a military occupation of a foreign country, such as Iraq."
Alan Simpson, a Labour MP and leading member of the Campaign Group, said: "It is bizarre and nonsensical that you get early release for murder or rape but you face the prospect of life imprisonment for refusing to kill."
Former army officers briefed Labour MPs at a private meeting in the Commons this week and urged them to reject the Bill. Ben Griffin, who refused to return to Iraq and resigned from the SAS, said: "I didn't join the British Army to conduct American foreign policy."
Atease, a campaign group for soldiers and their families, said: "The UK Government, worried that the number of soldiers absconding from the Army has trebled since the invasion of Iraq, is legislating to repress this movement in the military." They claimed that the Bill contravened the principles outlined at the Nuremberg hearings for the former leaders of Nazi Germany enshrining in international law the responsibility of individuals to refuse to obey illegal and immoral orders from any government.
The Ministry of Defence denied that the Bill imposed tougher sentences. But Gilbert Blades, a lawyer specialising in courts martial cases, said: "They are making a tougher definition of desertion." Mr Blades, who gave evidence to a select committee hearing on the Bill, said it could be challenged in the European Court of Human Rights.
Section 8 of the Bill makes it clear that a soldier commits an offence if he deserts by going absent without leave permanently, or to avoid any particular service in the armed forces.
The punishment for some forms of desertion - such as going AWOL for a short time while not trying to avoid service - is currently limited to a maximum of two years' imprisonment. But the Bill specifically states that those going AWOL to avoid serving during a military occupation, as in Iraq, could be jailed for life.Reuse content