Human Rights lawyers misled an inquiry into allegations that British soldiers had tortured and murdered Iraqi civilians by pursuing the claims long after they knew them to be untrue, a government dossier has alleged.
A report on Public Interest Lawyers (PIL), drawn up at the request of the Prime Minister David Cameron, claims that the Al-Sweady public enquiry was extended by up to a year, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of pounds, thanks to the failure of PIL to disclose that they knew allegations against British soldiers to be untrue.
It also claims that PIL used a local agent to trawl for locals who were willing to bring claims against the British forces. If true, it would constitute a flagrant breach of rules designed to stop solicitors touting for business.
Senior military commanders have said that the allegations being investigated by the Al-Sweady enquiry, that British soldiers tortured, murdered and mutilated innocent civilians following a fierce battle in Southern Iraq in 2004, had caused military personnel and their families “very great emotional strain” over the last decade. One serviceman has been put on suicide watch thanks to the pressure caused by the false allegations.
On that basis, the Government is planning to sue PIL for millions of pounds in compensation. It is also calling for PIL’s chief lawyer, Phil Shiner, to be struck off, the Telegraph has reported.
According to the MOD’s dossier, PIL had doubts about the veracity of their client’s allegations as early as March 2013 but failed to withdraw the claims for a whole year, leading to evidence being taken from a further 100 witnesses at a cost to the taxpayer of £780,000.
The law firm, which is based in Birmingham, even continued to represent a claimant in another judicial review after he admitted to investigators that the story he had given them about his sister dying on the battlefield was a fabrication, the dossier alleges.
Moreover, PIL has lodged 900 judicial review claims since June 2014, and is preparing a further 200, rousing suspicion that it is using third parties to make unsolicited approaches to locals. According to the dossier, the Government “has no direct evidence that Public Interest Lawyers or their agent are making unsolicited approaches to potential clients” inside Iraq.
However, the MoD “infers from the pattern of claims that this is more likely than not to be the case”, and “is unable to think of an alternative, reasonable explanation for such an extraordinary volume of claims”.
But PIL insists that the enquiry, which cost £31 million in total, was “legally necessary, morally justified and politically required”, as the judge leading the inquiry found that breaches of the Geneva convention had taken place.
Sir Thayne Forbes, said that instances of ill-treatment of detainees in during “tactical questioning” had taken place at Camp Abu Naji in southern Iraq on the night of the 14th / 15th May 2004. The ill-treatment included depriving prisoners of food, sight and sleep, and the use of threatening interrogation techniques, contrary to the Geneva Convention.
However the inquiry, named after a 19 year old allegedly killed in custody after the fighting, cleared the soldiers implicated of the most serious crimes, concluding that they were “wholly without foundation” and “entirely the product of deliberate lies, reckless speculation and ingrained hostility” on the part of Iraqi witnesses.
It found that the Iraqi men supposedly mistreated were not innocent farmers, but enemy fighters killed or captured during a ferocious ambush of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, and their reinforcements the 1st Battalion of the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment near Danny Boy checkpoint in Southern Iraq.
In the fighting that followed, 28 insurgents were killed and nine were captured and taken for questioning at Camp Abu Naji. Former 1st Battalion the Princess of Wales’ Royal Regiment corporal Brian Wood, 34, said: “We have been dragged through five years of hell. That in my view is a betrayal of our service. “We did what we had to do as soldiers and we did the right thing.” Mr Wood was later awarded the Military Cross for his part in the battle.
Regarding the allegations against PIL, an MoD spokesman told MailOnline: “The MoD is assisting the Solicitors Regulation Authority, which is investigating issues that came to light as a result of the Al-Sweady Inquiry.”
PIL said last night in a statement seen by the Sunday Telegraph: “The Al-Sweady inquiry thoroughly investigated the subject of these matters during which no criticisms were made of Public Interest Lawyers or Phil Shiner by the chair. It is not appropriate to comment any further while SRA proceedings are ongoing. PIL and Mr Shiner are confident that they have acted in accordance with their professional obligations.”