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8 September 2005 Edition

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New campaign to tackle British Army's 'culture of impunity'



The British Army is and has been engaged in a policy of systematic torture and abuse of civilians. That was the damning verdict made by a prominent human right's lawyer representing Iraqi civilians in legal action against the British Government in relation to the conduct of its armed forced in Iraq.

Phil Shiner made his comments at the launch of a new campaign on 5 September, set up to tackle the culture of impunity which pervades the British Army and which, amongst other things, aims to ensure that the convicted murderers of Belfast teenager Peter McBride, Guardsmen James Fisher and Mark Wright, are no longer allowed to continue their career in the army.

The launch was held at the GLA in London, the offices of the London Mayor Ken Livingstone. Significantly, it was also attended by the families of a number of British soldiers who have died in controversial circumstances.

Ken Livingstone, in a statement read to the meeting, said that the retention of Fisher and Wright "is human rights abuse on a grand scale".

"We have an innocent Irishman who was shot in the back after he had been searched and the soldiers shooting him in the back knew he represented no threat. Not only have these people been released, they are serving in the army again. How can anyone feel safe when these people have had guns put back in their hands?"

Paul O'Connor of the Pat Finucane Centre said that whilst the family could accept the soldiers' release — even though it was outside the terms of the Good Friday Agreement — "they have never accepted, and vow never to accept, that they have remained in the British Army". The two have also completed a tour of duty of Iraq.

"It has always been our argument that if you send two soldiers to Basra who have been convicted of a murder in Belfast, then that sends a very clear message to other soldiers who are serving in Basra; if you can get away with murder in Belfast, then you can certainly get away with it in Basra. That fosters a culture of immunity and impunity."

Torture and murder

Phil Shiner represents 50 families of Iraqi citizens taking cases against the British Government. They include the family of Baha Mousa, who was tortured to death by members of the Queen's Lancashire Regiment, and a number of the civilians shown being abused in photographs taken by British soldier Gary Bartlam and which were recently the subject of court martial proceedings in Osnabruck, Germany. Of these 50 cases, three concern deaths in detention, 19 are abuse and torture cases and 28 are unlawful killings.

Shiner told the shocking truth behind the photographs, taken at Camp Breadbasket, a food depot used by the British Army as a detention centre. In particular, he spoke about the civilian — not a looter as waspen season. If you wanted your 15 minutes, you could get stuck in, in any way you wanted.

He explained that he had tried to get this evidence heard by the court martial at Osnabruck.

"In my naivety, I thought that the court martial would be stopped, but instead I was threatened that if I dared breathe a word about what had really taken place I would be done for contempt of court. The court martial concluded in the sure knowledge that it was all a complete farce."

Shiner called for a proper, independent system of investigation and prosecution in relation to the "systematic abuse and torture policy" and drew parallels between what was happening to civilians in Iraq and what had happened in the north of Ireland in the past.

"Soldiers are encouraged to see the enemy in a way that is less than human, and there is a culture of bullying, which we have seen very clearly at Deepcut. I draw a clear link between that culture and what happened to my clients. I don't think any of these soldiers had a clue what international human rights law says about what they could or couldn't do."

Michael Mansfield QC, who represents some of the Bloody Sunday families at the Saville Inquiry, expressed deep concern at the passing of the Public Inquiry Act, which he called "a farce".

He spoke about his involvement with some of the most high-profile inquiries in recent times; Stephen Lawrence, the Marchioness Thames River boat disaster, and Bloody Sunday.

A common thread, he said, was that the families, besides getting to the truth about what happened, wanted accountability. For example, although Saville has yet to report, "one of the effects of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry is that soldiers junior and senior, and people like Ted Heath and Mike Jackson, have been brought before the families and cross examined; all in a sense held to account before the families".

But, he said, public inquiries are to be no more. "They have been abolished. On 7 June, the government reneged on a promise they had made to certain Irish families; the families of Pat Finucane — murdered, Rosemary Nelson — murdered. Robert Hamill — murdered; all almost certainly with the involvement of agencies of the British state, and finally Billy Wright. Those families were promised by the Labour Government that they would have a public inquiry.

"This is serious," he continued. "If you think you have a right to a public inquiry any more, you haven't. They are most likely, especially if it is a sensitive issue, to be in private. Parliament has been excluded from the process and Lord Saville himself has spoken out against this act.

"The purpose of any inquiry will now be determined by the relevant Minister, who will also set its terms of reference. The Minister will decide whether the public have access to it, what documents can be made public, if it is in the 'interests of national security' which always covers a multitude of sins, and whether the findings will be made public at all. And the government of the day has the right to say 'right, we've had enough of this inquiry, close it down'. It's a farce and this act needs to be repealed".

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