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Did British Soldiers Carry Out Summary Executions and Rape Civilians in Iraq?

Lawyers have sent a dossier of new evidence to the International Criminal Court detailing the alleged torture and brutality inflicted on Iraqis by British soldiers after the US-led invasion.
Photo by Paul Jarvis/EPA

Hours-long beatings, stabbings, repeated sexual assault and music as torture: Just some of the abuses allegedly inflicted upon Iraqi people by British soldiers during their occupation of Iraq, according to a new dossier provided to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and obtained by VICE News.

The horrifying allegations are contained in documents sent by the Birmingham-based firm Public Interest Lawyers (PIL) to the ICC, which ended an initial inquiry into alleged crimes committed by UK forces in Iraq in 2006 citing a lack of evidence, but went on to reopen the preliminary examination last year.


According to the allegations compiled by PIL, which span more than five years, from the 2003 US-led invasion until 2008, detainees were commonly beaten, made to wear black-out goggles, and left hooded — making breathing difficult — for hours following their initial arrest by British forces. They were kicked and hit with guns if they moved or asked for explanations for their detention. In some cases, detainees were allegedly threatened with execution. Several of the claims describe the use of electric shocks to torture Iraqis. Sleep deprivation, triggered by booming music, shouting, or the hurling of objects, also featured prominently in some accounts.

One particularly disturbing claim was brought on behalf of a man reportedly killed by British forces in April 2007. The 26-year-old was living with his wife and one-month-old daughter when soldiers allegedly entered his neighborhood.

Related: The UK Is Facing a Fresh Iraq War Crimes Probe

"There had been no fighting in the area," recounted the PIL communication, based on a claim brought by the man's adoptive father, who said he was also present at the home. "The soldiers surrounded the deceased's house and shot from the street directly into the bedroom," wrote PIL solicitors.

"The deceased died instantly. The soldier then shot at the deceased's wife who was carrying their baby," said the claim. The man's wife reportedly later died, as did others in the neighborhood, who were allegedly targeted by UK troops.


PIL sent two two separate communications containing the allegations to the ICC in January 2014 and September of this year, and itemized them in their entirety in what they called the Iraq Abuse Handbook. As of October, the handbook listed 1,251 cases, most of which were discussed in the second communication, which VICE News received with small redactions. Each of the cases was brought to the attention of PIL by Iraqi claimants, said the firm.

While the handbook remains private, the dozens of "exemplary" cases summarized in the second communication — if true — offer a vivid and disturbing set of new allegations. Many of these accusations have only come to light this year, according to lawyers at PIL. Along with the ICC, claims made against British forces have been lodged with authorities in the UK, including with the Iraq Historical Allegations Team (IHAT), an investigative body established by the British Ministry of Defense.

Since its formation in 2010, IHAT has referred only one case forwarded by PIL to military prosecutors, who subsequently declined to start proceedings. Human rights observers say previous investigations in the UK have fallen woefully short of determining culpability for select crimes committed in Iraq. Should the ICC chose to pursue an unprecedented official investigation into the actions of UK forces in Iraq, it would largely do so in light of perceived future failures on the part of the British government to investigate Iraqi claims.


Related: We Might Finally Get Some Truth About the UK's Role in Iraq — But Not Until Next Year

One testimonial in PIL's documents recounts the arrival of British forces at a home in Basra on August 18, 2008, just a few months before the UK pulled out of Iraq. A man's wife, whose name was redacted in the second communication, said that her 43-year-old husband was asleep in his bedroom at the time of the assault. With him were their five children and the man's brother, as well as the claimant. After breaking into the home, soldiers allegedly took one of the sons to another room where he was "beaten and handcuffed." After several hours of detention, the man's wife emerged from a hallway "and found her husband dead and covered with a blanket," killed by gunfire to his head.

Other alleged killings included that of a 17-year-old caught in the crossfire between British soldiers and armed assailants in August 2006. Already wounded, "the British forces saw the deceased on the floor and shot him through his neck and stabbed him in the chest with a knife," said a summary of the case. "They proceeded to drag him for between 40-50 meters as they stepped and kicked his body." PIL staff wrote that this information was relayed to the claimant by Iraqi police.

The September dossier also references incidents where multiple individuals were allegedly killed — in one case 18 people, in another 19 — but in each, it says, only one person is listed. According to PIL this is due to a lack of investigatory resources, and another reason British authorities and the Office of the Prosecutor of the ICC must probe the entire ream of allegations.


Though the cases before the ICC have also been received by IHAT, the British government's longstanding hostile relationship with PIL, and previous allegations that the firm fabricated claims, could make proving the events described in the Iraq Abuse Handbook difficult. Moreover, in many instances more than a decade has passed since the incidents in question are said to have occurred.

Related: British Forces May Have Killed More Than 250 Iraqis Illegally

An earlier UK investigation, known as the Al-Sweady inquiry, concluded that accusations of murder and torture lodged against British forces were "wholly without foundation" and "entirely the product of deliberate lies, reckless speculation, and ingrained hostility" on the part of Iraqi claimants.

The Al-Sweady inquiry was centered on allegations that British soldiers abused and killed prisoners following a violent firefight in 2004, known as the Battle of Danny Boy, named for a nearby UK base. On the final day of the public hearings, solicitors from PIL told the inquiry that there was insufficient evidence to prove that the captured insurgents had been unlawfully killed while in detention. The inquiry, which cost 31 million pounds ($47 million), was followed by government accusations that PIL continued pushing cases for a year despite knowing the allegations may have been unfounded.

Angela Stevens, a lawyer with PIL, made clear that the firm does not investigate any of the cases on their own. "That is the responsibility of the state; we take our client's instructions and present the claim to the UK government," she said in an email. "We take the client's accusations and any supporting evidence (such as death certificate, autopsy, and medical records) and issue their claim against the government."


Stevens said that PIL worked with an agent in Iraq who "delivers letters, arranges for the client to sign witness statements… and who also refers clients to us." The use of such an agent caused controversy among critics of the Al-Sweady Inquiry, who said it encouraged Iraqis to come forward with false statements.

She said the clients were seeking "human rights compliant investigations" and accountability for what happened to them or a loved one. The end result of that, she added, "could also include financial compensation."

Yet the ICC's decision to open a preliminary examination — the first step before a possible investigation and prosecutions — only came after PIL's initial communication, filed jointly with the Berlin-based European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, arrived at the court in January 2014. In its annual report issued earlier this month, the office of the prosecutor of the ICC said it had received allegations of 259 unlawful killings of civilians, including 47 of Iraqis who reportedly died in UK custody.

The UK Ministry of Defense did not respond to a VICE News request for comment on the allegations.

Though US forces greatly outnumbered their British counterparts in Iraq, and have been implicated in similar detainee abuse, Washington is not a member of the ICC. As Iraq is also not a signatory, the ICC has no jurisdiction over crimes committed by Americans in the country — barring a direct referral by the UN Security Council, where the US has veto power. The UK, however, is a member of the ICC, and one of its staunchest supporters.


ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda is now determining if the court has jurisdiction over the allegations compiled by PIL, and has begun "a thorough examination of the reliability of the sources and the credibility" of the cases it has received. Though Bensouda's office says that UK authorities have cooperated with the preliminary examination, should the inquiry proceed it could run up against Downing Street's longstanding assertion that abuse in Iraq was isolated, not widespread, and that it did not implicate the country's command structure, including soldiers' superiors.

"As my government has made clear, it rejects the allegation that there was any systematic abuse by British forces in Iraq," Catherine Adams, the legal director at the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office, said at a convening of ICC member states on November 18. "We are confident that we have demonstrated to the prosecutor that these matters are being thoroughly dealt with at national level."

When the UK became party to the ICC's Rome Statute in 2001, it passed domestic legislation outlining criminal liability in cases where military commanders failed to take "necessary and reasonable measures" to stop violations, or if they "consciously disregarded information" which indicated subordinates were committing or going to commit offenses. PIL contends that this is what took place in Iraq.

Related: 'Britain Taught the World How to Torture': Northern Ireland's Hooded Men Take New Evidence Back to Court


To date, only one British soldier, Corporal Donald Payne, has been sentenced for war crimes violations in Iraq. Payne was jailed for one year after pleading guilty to inhumanely treating an Iraqi, Baha Mousa, who died in custody of UK forces in September 2003.

Though Payne's jailing and discharge from the UK military was significant, other soldiers involved in the incident were cleared of charges lodged against them, as was Payne of manslaughter charges.

Clive Baldwin, senior legal advisor at Human Rights Watch, said the key issue at stake in the accusations against UK forces is the question of command responsibility — for those who oversaw soldiers like Payne. By Baldwin's count, the last time a senior British commander or politician was prosecuted for the crimes of their subordinates was in 1651.

Bensouda's office says it is monitoring the IHAT proceedings, now in their fifth year, and is not expected to escalate its own inquiry in the immediate future. Critics have disparaged IHAT for its slow speed of working. In 2012, a staffer at the inquiry, Louise Thomas, resigned in protest over what she considered was "little more than a whitewash." In an interview with the Guardian, Thomas said she had seen interrogation films from the Iraq occupation which showed ill-treatment of prisoners. Several such videos, showing soldiers screaming at and threatening detainees with death have also emerged in recent years.


Baldwin says the UK's contention that abuse of detainees was not systematic during the occupation is belied most clearly by the millions of pounds in compensation that have already been paid out to Iraqi victims that claimed some of the very violations outlined in the PIL dossiers. In 2012, the Ministry of Defense announced that it had paid out more than 14 million pounds to 205 former detainees who said they were illegally arrested and tortured while in custody.

As of November 9 of this year, the Ministry of Defense said it had settled 323 allegations of unlawful detention and personal injury, amounting to 19.6 million pounds. It added that the total number of claims from Iraqis number roughly 1,200. "It would be highly unlikely they would pay out damages if they thought they had a strong case," said Baldwin.

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Among the additional cases summarized in the second communication reference non-fatal abuses suffered by Iraqis in the course of detention by British forces, often involving sexual abuse.

One such case involved a man arrested by British soldiers in March 2003, just days after the US-led invasion of Iraq. After being detained, he was taken to a toilet where his hood was removed. Soldiers allegedly watched him, while one masturbated in front of the prisoner. "This soldier wiped his semen on him," said the summary account. "One soldier forced his penis into his mouth and forced him to perform oral sex. The soldier ejaculated into his mouth." The man said he was then raped three times, and a further two times on the following night. "Each time he was raped he was hooded but he saw the soldiers before they raped him and each time it was different soldiers." On other occasions he said he was raped at gunpoint by multiple soldiers. The man was reportedly released from custody in May 2003.


Another case describes a man, also arrested in March 2003, who said he was beaten and anally raped before soldiers ejaculated on his face and mouth. A separate case from the same period describes a man being left naked for hours on end, then sexually assaulted by a female soldier, which included anal penetration with an object, before being raped and attacked by male soldiers at least five times. "During some periods he was raped or sexually assaulted every two hours." The man said he asked the soldiers to kill him. He was released in October of that year.

Several additional cases in the second communication outline alleged beatings, repeated rapes, and forced masturbation, urination on detainees, forced oral sex and beatings that followed refusal to submit.

"Justice needs to be done, and it needs to be applied fairly," said Baldwin. "It is a test of the ICC always to make sure it is not what its detractors say it is, which is that it only investigate Africans."

But Baldwin added that ideally, the ICC wouldn't be used at all, and that it should only be employed as a last resort. He noted that, from a purely operation standpoint, the court had far fewer resources than domestic prosecutors in the UK.

"They key thing is that the UK is willing and able," he said. "They have said they are able to do it, but they haven't shown themselves willing."

A MOD spokesperson responded to the claims in a statement to VICE News. "These are unproven allegations. Nevertheless, it is right that they are treated seriously," it said. "They are being independently investigated by the Iraq Historic Allegations Team, which has a lifetime budget of £57M. If there is sufficient evidence that UK service personnel committed criminal offences, they will be prosecuted through the independent Service Prosecuting Authority."

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford

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