LONDON // British judges are to review evidence into allegations that British soldiers systematically tortured Iraqi civilians, leading to some deaths, and decide whether to call a public inquiry.
In an initial hearing, the high court in London was presented with the cases of 192 Iraqi civilians whose treatment at the hands of the UK military, their lawyers argued, showed not only clear violations of the European Convention on Human Rights, but evidence that such violence was systemic.
The two high-court judges presiding over the case did not give a time frame for a decision, which could result in the biggest inquiry into rights abuses since the Bloody Sunday inquiries into the killings of 13 demonstrators at a civil-rights march in Northern Ireland in January 1972.
Public Interest Lawyers (Pil), the company acting on behalf of the complainants, said there were another 871 Iraqis waiting to come forward with more allegations of abuse.
"It's a very important case," said Clive Baldwin, a legal expert with Human Rights Watch, who said it could be the first under the Human Rights Convention to require such a "wide-ranging" inquiry, and could clear the way for charges of war crimes.
"Ordering that is clearly a major undertaking."
Michael Fordham, one of the UK's leading human-rights lawyers, argued that investigations into soldiers' conduct in Iraq by Britain's Ministry of Defence (MoD), needed independent oversight. Suggestions that the military was engaged in systemic violations demanded "public ventilation", he said.
The accusations range from unlawful killings, some of people who died while in custody, to torture by sexual abuse, food, water and sleep deprivation, mock execution, religious abuse and abuse by dogs. They cover the period from March 2003 until December 2008.
Mr Fordham and his team sought to convince the judges that there was enough evidence to suggest systemic issues at play and that the current mechanism for investigating military abuses in Iraq - the MoD's Iraq Historic Allegations Team (Ihat) - is either not independent enough or not structured in such a way as to allow it to investigate systemic issues.
Ihat, which was established in 2010, is comprised of members of the Royal Military Police and other members of the military.
In December, the high court heard allegations from a former investigator that Ihat amounted to nothing more than a "face-saving exercise" for the British government.
Lawyers for the MoD argued that the latest allegations are unproven, however, and as such should not be taken under consideration before they are investigated.
Accusations against Ihat are also flawed, lawyers said: Ihat is not only an adequate mechanism for investigating individual allegations of abuse, it is the "proper" avenue for such investigations.
On the hearing's first day on Tuesday, the MoD also announced that Ihat was reopening investigations into two deaths where prior investigations were deemed not "sufficiently thorough".
The MoD strenuously denies any systemic abuse.
Phil Shiner, a lawyer with Pil, said before the hearing that "tens of thousands" of allegations suggested "very serious systemic abuse".
Mr Shiner said Pil had uncovered evidence of training manuals for military interrogations that included such banned practices as hooding and stripping detainees naked. The British military in Iraq had in effect ignored international human-rights law as well as laws passed in the UK in 1971, Mr Shiner said, which prohibit certain interrogation techniques.
The judges made much of the time such a wide-ranging inquiry could demand. Mr Fordham, however, insisted that not only did the court have to order a general inquiry into whether there was systemic abuse, but also that the inquiry had to satisfy every individual's right to a fair hearing and take place before too much time had elapsed for evidence to have been "degraded".
"We need to get this under control, and that must inevitably be under independent supervision," he told the court.