Adam Ingram, the Armed Forces minister, admitted yesterday that the lives of troops in Iraq may have been put at risk by the publication in the Daily Mirror newspaper of pictures allegedly showing Iraqi prisoners being tortured by British soldiers.
"These allegations have been put right across the Arab world and also into Iraq," he told MPs. "There is always a question of lives being put at risk because of what may prove to be unfounded allegations, so it is on the conscience of those who run it in this way."
Peter Mandelson protested that the investigation into the authenticity of the photographs was still going on but the Daily Mirror had accused members of the 1st Battalion, the Queen's Lancashire Regiment of torture. But the Daily Mirror continued to stand by the photographs last night, claiming there was "no doubt" that they were genuine.
Janet Anderson, a former minister for culture, media and sport, called on Piers Morgan, the editor of the paper, to resign if the photographs were found to be fakes. Gerald Kaufman, the Labour chairman of the select committee for culture, who was a Daily Mirror journalist for nine years, said that "the sternest action" should be taken against the editor if the charges were untrue.
Mr Ingram confirmed the Government's lawyers had assured ministers the European Convention on Human Rights did not apply to the behaviour of the British troops in Iraq.
Ministers are braced for challenges in the courts this week under the European Convention by lawyers acting for the families of Iraqi civilians who were allegedly abused by British troops. Ministry of Defence officials said later that the troops were not immune from criminal prosecution. "They are subject to the law of the UK," said one MoD official.
Nicholas Soames, the Tory spokesman on defence, said: "If wrong has been done, then it must immediately be dealt with, but let the country keep in perspective 300 years of the most loyal, gallant and distinguished service to the Crown."
Mr Soames asked if the investigation had yet been able to establish whether the pictures were genuine or whether the paper had offered money for such images. He also asked whether British forces received adequate training in their responsibilities under the Geneva Convention.
"If these incidents have indeed taken place the most vigorous action must be taken to protect those in military custody in Iraq and elsewhere and to restore the good name of the Army."
Being part of the military demanded "an exceptional responsibility of respect for others" and "the ability to distinguish quite clearly between right and wrong and to maintain the highest standards of decency at all times," he said.
Liberal Democrat defence spokesman Paul Keetch said there were "serious doubts about the authenticity of the pictures". He questioned what progress had been made during investigations on abuse exposed in genuine pictures from last year.
He called for confirmation that the Red Cross would be allowed to visit all prisoners held by British troops in Iraq.Reuse content