The International Criminal Court has begun looking at allegations British troops committed war crimes in Iraq
13 May 2014
The International Criminal Court in the Hague has begun investigating allegations that British troops committed war crimes in Iraq by abusing and torturing hundreds of prisoners.
A prosecutor for the Hague court has begun a “preliminary examination” of alleged abuses by British forces in Iraq between 2003 and 2008.
The examination, the first step towards a formal investigation, raises the prospect that British soldiers and their commanders could one day face trial in the Hague for war crimes.
The ICC said it had begun looking at the allegations after receiving an evidence dossier earlier this year from human rights lawyers alleging “systematic” abuse of detainees.
The 250-page dossier detailed allegations of beatings, electric shocks, mock executions and sexual assault, and said those bearing ultimate responsibility for the abuses included some of the country’s most senior commanders and politicians.
Former defence secretary Geoff Hoon and former Armed Forces minister Adam Ingram are among those named in the file.
The court said “The new information received by the office alleges the responsibility of officials of the United Kingdom for war crimes involving systematic detainee abuse in Iraq”.
The examination will look at “alleged crimes attributed to the Armed Forces of the United Kingdom” to decide if a full ICC investigation is needed.
Hague prosecutors will look at the scale of the allegations and see who has jurisdiction.
The Government said it “completely rejects” allegations British troops had been responsible for systematic abuses and there was no need for a full ICC investigation because because the allegations are already being investigated by the British justice system.
The Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, said he understood the importance of the ICC following “proper legal procedures” over complaints, but he could show the Hague “that British justice is following its proper course”.
However legal sources admitted the preliminary probe could drag on for “very lengthy periods of time”, even years, before the ICC was satisfied the allegations were being properly dealt with.
Mr Grieve said: “The Government completely rejects the allegation that there was systematic abuse carried out by the British Armed Forces in Iraq.
“British troops are some of the best in the world and we expect them to operate to the highest standards, in line with both domestic and international law. In my experience the vast majority of our Armed Forces meet those expectations.”
Andrew Cayley QC, director of the military prosecution authority, said: “Whilst a preliminary examination will take place, and the UK will fully cooperate with that process, I do not believe, I am confident that an investigation will not be opened.
“If the UK is found to be genuinely investigating these crimes and prospectively prosecuting them, the ICC will not intervene.”
“One of the reasons that the ICC was established was to ensure these kinds of crimes, if indeed they have taken place, are dealt with within national jurisdictions.”
A team set up by Britain’s Ministry of Defence to probe allegations of abuse is already looking at scores of cases, but has been dogged by slow progress and claims it is not impartial.
The Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT) is currently dealing with 52 allegations of unlawful killing by British forces after the toppling of Saddam Hussein. It is also looking at 93 allegations of mistreatment.
Phil Shiner, of Public Interest Lawyers which helped compile the dossier, said the IHAT team was incapable of holding to account those at the top who were responsible for alleged abuses.
He said: “We want a sea change. We don’t want the UK to behave in this way. We think it reflects very badly on our Armed Forces and we think it reflects very badly on the nation.”
“We are very concerned that people at the very highest level knew exactly what was going on in Iraq and chose to turn a blind eye or – worse – actually sanctioned it.”
The ICC first looked at claims of British abuses in Iraq in 2006, but decided a full war crimes investigation was not needed because the allegations were not serious, or widespread, enough.
Fatou Bensouda said she had decided to reopen the case because of the new information collected had not been available in 2006.