Damning verdict on Iraq troops ‘witch hunt’
MPs blame ‘rotten core’ within MoD for letting soldiers be hounded by false claims
By Robert Mendick, Chief Reporter
THE Government’s £60 million investigation into historic allegations of abuse in Iraq is unfit for purpose and should be shut down immediately, a 10-month parliamentary inquiry is expected to conclude.
The report by MPs on the defence committee is also set to blame the Ministry of Defence (MoD) for putting in place a system that enabled the now-disgraced lawyer Phil Shiner to generate criminal cases against veterans “on an industrial scale”.
Mr Shiner was struck off last week for acting dishonestly, recklessly and without integrity while bringing false claims of murder, torture and mistreatment against thousands of soldiers. Mr Shiner, who faces a possible criminal investigation for fraud, lodged 2,470 criminal complaints against troops.
The parliamentary inquiry’s findings, due to be published on February 15, will cast serious doubt on the workings of the Iraq Historic Allegations Team (Ihat), which was set up by the Government in 2010.
Johnny Mercer, the Conservative MP who chaired the inquiry and has repeatedly condemned the “witch hunt” against troops, last night accused “a rotten core” of civil servants within the MoD of making decisions “without ministerial or military” input.
It is understood that the report’s findings will:
♦ Question why Mr Shiner’s law firm, Public Interest Lawyers (PIL), was paid by Ihat to help it with its inquiries;
♦ Criticise the MoD for paying Mr Shiner’s firm more than £200,000 – after the lawyer had already been reported to the solicitors’ watchdog;
♦ Call for Ihat to be replaced by an inquiry team from the military police, which has experience of conflict zones;
♦ Condemn the payment by Ihat of £110,000 to an Iraqi agent who was also working for Mr Shiner.
Ihat employs a team of more than 140 staff including private investigators – many of them retired police officers – hired through a recruitment agency and paid almost £5 million a year, to investigate veterans of the Iraq conflict.
The new report is expected to raise deep concerns over the conduct of the Ihat team and its failure to appreciate the stress placed on soldiers who working in the hostile Iraq “war zone” in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion.
No successful prosecutions have yet been brought by Ihat in seven years, although three soldiers, including a major commended for bravery, are facing charges for manslaughter in a case that has caused a huge outcry. The only successful conviction to date is of an Ihat investigator who falsely impersonated a police officer in the course of his inquiries.
Sir Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, will now come under huge pressure to scrap Ihat. Sir Michael pledged to the inquiry that he would be prepared to shut Ihat if the defence committee offered a workable alternative.
There is a rotten core of civil servants in the MoD who have made decisions without ministerial or military input
Mr Mercer, a former Army captain, told The Sunday Telegraph: “I have made my distaste for the methods and behaviour of Ihat – and the MoD’s complicity in it – very obvious over the last year. The evidence has been clear and I look forward to publishing our report a week Wednesday.”
In a withering attack on Whitehall mandarins, he added: “I am pretty clear where the problems lie. There is a rotten core of civil servants in the MoD who have made decisions without ministerial or military input, and have in the process demonstrated a disturbing lack of understanding or respect for the more subtle qualities that bind an army together and make men fight for each other or a cause.
“Things have improved this year but, prior to my investigation, there was no heed whatsoever paid to how this process has affected our people. That is a deep regret of mine.”
The inquiry report is expected to reserve its most damning criticism for a secret deal agreed between Ihat and PIL, in which staff from Mr Shiner’s law firm were paid by Ihat to accompany Iraqi witnesses during interviews held in Turkey and Lebanon.
Ihat, which is funded by the MoD, made 11 payments, totalling £208,342, to Mr Shiner’s law firm between October 2015 and July 2016 for legal expenses and fees for flying PIL lawyers and employees to interviews. The payments were made despite the fact PIL, which has since shut down, had already been reported to the legal watchdog by the MoD over false claims of murder and torture against troops made during the £25 million al-Sweady inquiry.
Sir Michael has said the MoD had no option but to make the payments because they were for work for Ihat that had already taken place.
The inquiry report will also condemn payments totalling more than £110,000 to an Iraqi fixer who worked for both Mr Shiner and for Ihat. The agent, Abu Jamal, was paid to carry out administrative tasks for Ihat while also touting for business on behalf of PIL.
The MoD stopped the payments when it realised that Jamal was working for both sides – but MPs are understood to be critical of why it took three years for the payments to come to light.
The conclusions of the inquiry will delight veterans who have repeatedly expressed their disgust at the huge toll taken on them by Ihat investigations into historic events in war-torn Iraq.
Rachel Webster, a former Army captain, was investigated by Ihat and subsequently paid damages for her rough treatment during her arrest. Miss Webster, who was cleared by Ihat in September, two-and-a-half years after being arrested in a dawn raid, said: “Ihat needs to be disbanded immediately.”
Ihat has insisted that its investigations are handled with sensitivity but that it must follow through all complaints fully. It points out that of 3,392 allegations received, it has now reduced the number of investigations to fewer than 250 and by the summer it expects that figure to be about 60.
The MoD has said it was forced to set up Ihat as a consequence of a series of adverse court rulings, which demanded that criminal inquiries be carried out by an independent team. The Government said that if Ihat had not been set up to investigate the claims brought by Mr Shiner and others, then the Forces risked an investigation by the International Criminal Court (ICC) instead.
The ICC, based in the Hague, said a preliminary examination of war crimes in Iraq, which it began after Mr Shiner presented a dossier of alleged abuse in 2014, remained ongoing
Damning verdict on Iraq troops ‘witch hunt’