Page last updated at 17:08 GMT, Friday, 2 October 2009 18:08 UK

War crimes probe delay criticised

Soldier on patrol
The Ministry of Defence denies wrongdoing by British soldiers

High Court judges have criticised the UK government over delays in setting up a public inquiry into alleged war crimes by British troops in Iraq.

A group of Iraqi men claim they were tortured and 20 compatriots murdered at a UK base after a fire-fight in 2004.

Mr Justice Silber said he was "at a loss" as to why no inquiry terms of reference had been presented.

The government was given two weeks to appoint a chairman. It denies stalling and says there is no evidence of abuse.

The hearing will resume on 16 October.

The High Court had been hearing a legal challenge over the MoD's refusal to set up an independent inquiry into the deaths in southern Iraq in 2004.

Judges criticised the government for failing to disclose relevant documents to the court quickly enough.

For these allegations to be true, it would have involved a massive conspiracy involving huge numbers of people
Bill Rammell, Armed Forces Minister

In a written judgement, they said: "It is extremely regrettable that so much public money and so much court time has been wasted as a consequence of the persistent and repeated failure by the Secretary of State to comply with his duties of disclosure."

Armed Forces Minister Bill Rammell apologied for the failure to disclose, blaming it on record-keeping problems and stressed there was no evidence to support the allegations being made against British troops.

"For these allegations to be true, it would have involved a massive conspiracy involving huge numbers of people," he said.

"There is no evidence whatsoever for this.

"Nevertheless, because of our failings of disclosure and the unwillingness of the Metropolitan Police to investigate, we are committing to an independent public inquiry.

In July, ministers conceded there was a need for a new investigation into the deaths.

The Ministry of Defence has since said it has taken "every conceivable step" to allow an inquiry to be held as soon as possible.

Mutilation claims

Lawyers for the six Iraqi men claim the civilians were killed after capture - not during fighting, as the British military claims - at the Battle of Danny Boy.

The court has already heard claims UK troops tortured the men before killing them.

Civilians were allegedly detained following the battle between British soldiers and Iraqi insurgents near Al Majar-al-Kabir in Maysan province on 14 May 2004.

Lawyers for the Iraqis have produced medical evidence in court they claim supports allegations that captives were taken to the UK's Camp Abu Naji, where they were tortured, murdered, and their bodies mutilated.

The six Iraqis who called for the inquiry include the uncle of one of those who died and five others who allege they were also mistreated.

The MoD says the dead were killed on the battlefield and denies wrongdoing.

But the judgement also criticised the Royal Military Police's handling of investigations.

It said: "The evidence from contemporaneous documents clearly showed that the investigation into the allegations of murder on 14 or 15 May 2004 was blocked until 20 June 2004, thereby resulting in a crucial loss of time and investigative opportunity."

It added that the detainees who had alleged that they were abused were not even interviewed about what had happened.

Lord Justice Scott Baker also spoke of his concern about "computers disappearing into the Channel" - a reference to an apparent attempt to get rid of evidence.

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