Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 August 2019

UK troops to receive legal protection over battlefield claims

New defence secretary says protecting veterans is a personal priority

Baha Mousa, who died in UK military custody, features in a family photo held by his sons. AFP
Baha Mousa, who died in UK military custody, features in a family photo held by his sons. AFP

British armed forces are to be given stronger legal protections against “unfair” investigations for alleged crimes committed on the battlefield in Iraq and Afghanistan, said the UK’s new defence secretary.

The plans would prevent soldiers being investigated for alleged crimes in war zones ten years after the event other than in exceptional circumstances. The law would not apply to alleged offences in Northern Ireland.

"It is high time that we change the system and provide the right legal protections to make sure the decisions our service personnel take in the battlefield will not lead to repeated or unfair investigations down the line,” Penny Mordaunt said in a statement.

The comments came 18 months after the international criminal court said there was a “reasonable” basis to suspect that UK servicemen had committed war crimes against at least 61 people in their custody in Iraq.

In a speech in London on Wednesday, the defence secretary said that it was her priority to “stop this chilling effect that’s plaguing veterans who really deserve our care and our respect”. The plans will now go out to public consultation.

Her comments came after an MP for the ruling Conservative party said he would refuse to back the government in parliament other than for Brexit votes until new laws to protect ex-military personnel were introduced.

Johnny Mercer said told Sky News that that Ms Mordaunt’s plan was a “good start” but needed to go further.

He has called for the protections to be extended to include alleged crimes in Northern Ireland. One former British soldier learned in March that he would stand trial for murder in connection with the killing in 1972 of 13 peaceful marchers in one of the most notorious incidents of civil strife in Northern Ireland.

Between 2010 and 2017, a historic allegations team for Iraq investigated more than 3,600 allegations of unlawful killings and ill treatment. British troops were found to have mistreated an Iraqi civilian who died in 2003 in custody and others were found to have tied up another detainee and suspended him from a forklift truck.

But the inquiry into claims of torture, murder and mistreatment in Iraq was shut down in 2017 after allegations of vexatious claims. One solicitor who brought hundreds of cases was struck off for dishonesty.

Updated: May 15, 2019 04:19 PM

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