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British troops breached conventions in Iraq, rules high court

The court ruled that Britain implemented a flawed and unlawful approach to the detention of civilians during the Iraq war

British soldiers guard a group of Iraqi men in southern Iraq in 2003 (Reuters)

A human rights firm declared victory for Iraqi civilians subjected to ‘inhuman and degrading treatment’ by British soldiers at the International Criminal Court on Thursday.

In a judgment delivered by Justice Leggatt, the high court ruled that the Ministry of Defence had breached the Geneva conventions and 1998 Human Rights Act by implementing a flawed and unlawful approach to the detention of civilians during the Iraq war, reported the Guardian.

The judgment followed two High Court civil trials which heard allegations of abuse and unlawful detention in relation to four Iraqi civilians, who gave evidence in an English courtroom for the first time.

Leggatt said none of the claimants was engaged in terrorist activities or posed any threat to security in Iraq. 

Nevertheless, the judge found prisoners were assaulted by soldiers running over their backs and were hooded with sandbags during their transportation and while in custody.

Leggatt said the claimants were entitled under international humanitarian law and Article 5 of the European Convention to have their cases assessed and a decision whether to intern or release them made promptly following their arrival at Camp Bucca on 25 March 2003.

Making all due allowance for the wartime conditions, such an assessment should have taken place within, at most, 10 days of their internment. Their cases were not considered, however, until 10 April 2003 – when the decision was made to release them.  As a result, they were unlawfully detained for six days.

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In one case, a claimant was awarded £33,300 in total for inhuman and degrading treatment consisting in a beating following his arrest, ‘harsh’ interrogation, sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation and unlawful detention for 33 days.

The four claims at trial were ‘lead’ cases and will allow for the MoD and Leigh Day to assess the merits of a further 627 cases.

Sapna Malik, a partner in the international claims team at Leigh Day who represented two of the claimants, said the claimants’ ability to pursue claims in a UK court was "testament to the strength of our democracy".

"These trials took place against an onslaught of political, military and media slurs of Iraqis bringing spurious claims, and strident criticism of us, as lawyers, representing them," she said.

"Yet we have just witnessed the rule of law in action. Our clients are grateful that the judge approached their claims without any preconception or presumption that allegations of misconduct by British soldiers are inherently unlikely to be true. Our clients’ evidence has been tested at length in court and the Ministry of Defence has been found wanting."

In total, Leigh Day has issued 967 claims on behalf of Iraqi citizens against the MoD alleging unlawful detention/mistreatment and in some cases, including Baha Mousa, unlawful killings. Of these four have been discontinued or struck out and 331 have been settled by the MoD.

The third group of cases is due to be heard at a trial next year as the allegations involve UK joint liability with US forces and therefore the court will hear separate legal arguments.

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