Iraqi abuses prompt limits to military power in inquiries

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The Independent Online

Defence ministers are to make sweeping reforms of military law after a series of botched investigations into the abuse and deaths of Iraqi civilians were exposed by The Independent on Sunday.

The move is seen as a dramatic admission that military police investigations into dozens of suspicious deaths and alleged torture cases involving British troops in Iraq have been mishandled or obstructed by senior officers.

Investigations by the IoS and human rights lawyers have uncovered more than 20 cases where inquiries into alleged abuse were blocked by army commanders. At least six prosecutions have collapsed because of inadequate police inquiries. As a result, military prosecutors will be brought in at a very early stage to direct military police investigations in all serious cases such as murder, rape or torture.

The move follows damning criticisms from High Court judges about the speed of the military police investigation into the death in British custody of the Iraqi hotel receptionist Baha Mousa, in September 2003. It took until earlier this month for the Attorney General to announce charges in the case - 22 months after his death.

Lord Goldsmith said seven soldiers, including the then commander of the Queen's Lancashire Regiment, Colonel Jorge Mendonca, and two Intelligence Corps members, face a court martial over Mr Mousa's death and alleged ill-treatment of other detainees.

Army commanders have also been hit by damning criticisms from lawyers, MPs, the International Red Cross and Amnesty International over the official investigations into the abuse allegations. It is also facing legal action by the families of more than 50 Iraqi civilians killed, ill-treated or injured by British troops.

Now, after repeated protests by ministers that the criticisms were unjustified, the Ministry of Defence is planning a fundamental shake-up of the courts martial system, the handling of military prosecutions and the laws used by all the UK's armed forces. It will introduce the reforms in the Commons later this year in the Armed Forces Bill, marking the first root-and-branch review of military law in 50 years.

The reforms will also remove a commanding officer's right to block investigations into serious and complex cases involving their own troops. This follows several clashes between army commanders and the Attorney General over their attempts to stop prosecutions in alleged murder cases.

The Crown Prosecution Service has been brought in to consider charges in one of the most controversial cases of the war - the "friendly-fire" deaths of Sergeant Stephen Roberts, who had been told to hand in his body armour.

The new Bill will introduce five key reforms:

* A new single "joint prosecuting authority" for all three armed forces.

* Removing a commander's powers to stop police investigations, and restricting commanding officers' powers in minor "summary" cases.

* A legal requirement on the military police to get expert advice on serious or complex cases at an early stage.

* A central courts martial system for the Army, Navy and Air Force, replacing the traditional separate courts for each service.

* A single system of military law for all three services.

The MoD said several of these measures, such as having a single body of military law, were proposed in the late 1990s and were linked to the modernisation of the armed forces. But a spokesman admitted the controversy over the "Iraq abuse" cases had been a significant factor in other reforms.