Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Public anger at Iraq Historic Abuse Team allegations

Anger is growing in the UK at the work of the Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT) and the involvement in many case of a legal firm called Public Interest Lawyers. Following the emergence of allegations of torture in 2010 the Ministry of Defence established IHAT to investigate. IHAT is led by a retired senior (civillian) police officer and staffed by retired civilians contracted by private firms and the Royal Navy Police. Prior to a judicial review the Royal Military Police (Army Police) were also involved. However following judgement they were 'conflicted out' of the investigation. In a further judicial review in 2013 the High Court confirmed that IHAT was an independent body capable of investigating allegations of abuse.

Currently IHAT is investigating over 1000 alleged cases of abuse by HM Forces in Iraq. Thanks largely to the operational difficulties of investigating in Iraq and the cultural challenges (third hand accounts are often described in the first person), coupled with the passage of time, the investigations have been slow. These delays have caused much frustration to all involved. Individual investigations are referred to the Director of Service Prosecutions (currently Andrew Cayley CMG QC) for charging advice. So far no cases have been brought to trial. If they are, and announcements are expected this year, then the Service Prosecuting Authority will prosecute individuals in the Court Martial.

As the announcement of prosecutions draws nearer the Press in the UK have been reflecting (and stirring up) public and political anger at the conduct of IHAT and the principle that historic investigations into HM Forces conduct take place. In the last couple of months a stream of articles have been published in both tabloids and broadsheets critiscing the investigations. These have included comments from the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Defence, Members of Parliament  and Senior Officers.

The flames have been fanned further by the conclusions of the Al Sweady inquiry and the involvement (at public expense) of some large firms of solicitors with a reputation as 'ambulance chasers'. This dovetails with on going mistrust of the European Convention on Human Rights (extended to the battlefield in MoD v Smith) and general belief that it prevents HM Forces operating effectively.

What has not been raised publicly is the fact that the UK has a duty to investigate these allegations and if it does not discharge that duty the International Criminal Court will. Something even less palatable to the UK public.

Where next?

This story is going to grow and grow, and it is expected that the Court Martial and the Service Prosectuion Authority will come under increasing scrutiny and suffer more public mistrust. A situation already made worse by the conviction of (former) Sergeant Alexander Blackman (Marine A) and subsequent campaign for his release. The Court Martial in the UK already suffers poor reporting and indeed blatant examples of contempt of court in the press. IHAT trials will no doubt make that worse. We will know more when the SPA announces its decisions. 

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