The Ministry of Defence has quietly settled 417 Iraq compensation claims and paid out several million pounds to resolve accusations that British troops subjected Iraqis to cruel and inhumane treatment, arbitrary detention or assault.
Individual claims that have been settled run into the low tens of thousands and follow high court rulings that concluded there were breaches of the Geneva conventions and the Human Rights Act, during the military operation that followed the invasion in 2003.
Martyn Day, a senior partner with Leigh Day, the solicitors that brought the action, said: “While we’ve had politicians like David Cameron and Theresa May criticising us for supposedly ambulance chasing, the MoD has been quietly settling claims.
“The settlements here cover a mix of cases, instances of false imprisonment, assault,” the lawyer added. “What this shows is that when it comes to what amounts to policing in a foreign state, the military are simply not the right people to do it.”
Many of the details of the cases remain confidential, although one involved the death of a 13-year-old boy. But the financial settlements were based on four test cases concluded in the high court in 2017. The four were awarded a total of £84,000 based on three separate incidents.
At the time one claimant was awarded £33,000 by Mr Justice Leggatt for unlawful detention and a beating it was determined he had suffered in 2007, by “one or more implements” probably rifle butts.
Two Iraqi merchant seamen received payments after their detention in 2003: one was awarded £28,000 after an assault and hooding; while a second was awarded £10,000 because they had also been hooded.
Many of the fresh claims also involve hooding – where a sandbag or other hood is thrown over the head of a detainee. The practice was banned in 1972 by Ted Heath, when he was prime minister, although some British soldiers have admitted they were not aware of the order while serving in Iraq.
The MoD has not made any public announcement about the claims, but an official disclosure out this week showed that the civil actions had been resolved. It noted that 417 “Iraq private law” claims had been settled during 2020/21 and a further 13 relating to Afghanistan.
But there is no prospect of any criminal action following 417 civil settlements, after several years of often politically charged debate about the conduct of British soldiers in Iraq during the years of combat operations, which ended in 2011.
The government shut the Iraq historic allegations team in 2017, following the conclusion of the controversial al-Sweady inquiry three years earlier.
That inquiry found that allegations that British troops had murdered detained Iraqis and mutilated their bodies were fabricated. The lead lawyer that had brought those claims, Phil Shiner, was subsequently struck off.
In April, the government passed the Overseas Operations Act, which introduced a presumption against criminal prosecutions for five years after the event and a longstop to prevent civil claims being brought after six years.
At one point, Day and two colleagues were also accused of professional misconduct for the way in which they had brought claims. But the three lawyers were exonerated following a hearing at the solicitor’s disciplinary tribunal.
An MoD spokesperson said: “Whilst the vast majority of UK personnel conducted themselves to the highest standards in Iraq and Afghanistan, we acknowledge that it has been necessary to seek negotiated settlements of outstanding claims in both the Iraq civilian litigation and Afghan civil litigation.”
They added that Service Police and the Service Prosecuting Authority remained open to considering criminal allegations should new evidence emerge.