Still no justice for Iraqi war victims

Publicised scandals, including Abu Ghraib, barely scratch the surface of war crimes perpetrated against Iraqi civilians.
Sunday 15/07/2018
A file picture of Baha Mousa’s sons as they show off a family photo of them posing with their father and mother at their home in Basra. (AFP)
Irreversible loss. A file picture of Baha Mousa’s sons as they show off a family photo of them posing with their father and mother at their home in Basra. (AFP)

The prosecution of British war crimes in Iraq has metamorphosed into a political saga with forever shifting parameters.

New twists threaten to reinvent the story of Britain’s unwelcomed occupation of Iraq, beneath claims that “we may never know” the hands of British personnel are dirty with Iraq blood and efforts to block the involvement of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Accusations of wilful killings, abuse and torture, fended off in December by British Prime Minister Theresa May’s official spokesman, drew muted outrage owing to the publicised witch hunt against lawyers shunned by May as “activist and left-wing.”

A growing number of Queen’s Counsels and lawyers, handling legacy investigations in the past decade, are being dismissed on allegations of professional misconduct. The most famous involved the closure of the Birmingham-based Public Interest Lawyers (PIL) firm in August 2016, representing complainants in the $40 million price tag — Al-Sweady enquiry case. The closure was justified on grounds of deceit and selective fact-finding after some of the people killed by British soldiers were found to be members of the paramilitary Mehdi army group.

The intended gagging of PIL unfolds, as some Iraqis say, as an exercise in the reinvention of history and postponement of justice. Lyndon Mukasa, a writer who specialised in the development of the Caribbean region, likens British war crimes in the context of Iraq to “the Windrush scandal,” arguing that politics “for too long, and the UK immigration policy, has affected the priorities of the state.”

Publicised scandals, including Abu Ghraib, barely scratch the surface of war crimes perpetrated against Iraqi civilians and the parroted argument that Britain’s judicial structures are sufficient enough to produce a meaningful “apolitical” verdict draws attention to the greater bid to ward off ICC prosecution.

More than juridical tools and domestic mechanisms, politics is what defines the fate of offenders. The claims presented by PIL head, solicitor Phil Shiner, and the potential for ICC involvement were quashed and, with that, the remaining hope to see the glass wall, behind which heads of government and disgraced British soldiers hide behind, shatter.

Evidence introduced by Shiner, endorsed in a report written by ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, before he was struck off, is considered defunct. The “No grounds” argument, helping to keep the ICC at bay, is gaining traction.

The flimsy rationale provided by British officials, May and others, does little to rebut Iraqi suspicions of a truth-suppression scheme that protects occupying countries, not the innocent victims whose lives remain haunted as a result of Britain’s hedonism.

Last year’s decision to pull down the shutters on the Iraq Historic Allegations Team, established under the former Labour government, is further evidence of the postponement of justice and demotion of the rights of occupied people.

While the legal investigative body was lauded for its receptivity to international law standards, particularly in the Baha Mousa inquiry settlement, the same can no longer apply. The family of Mousa, a 26-year-old Iraqi civilian hotel receptionist from Basra, tortured to death while in the custody of British soldiers in 2003, received a $4 million payout while the trial proceedings cost six times the amount.

Acceptance of blame was a tough destination that ministers stammered and floundered before arriving at. Of seven defendants, only one admitted wrongdoing, becoming the first British soldier convicted of a war crime.

“The refusal of leading British institutions to concede responsibility in the case of war crimes in Iraq is rooted in the same self-righteous belief [as Windrush] that they define what justice is, who is entitled to justice and when justice can be enacted,” Mukasa said.

The line of Iraqi awaiting justice grows, all the while a conspiracy of silence prevails. Although the British military has an image to protect, the very insistence that “we may never know” if British military personnel enacted crimes from 2003-05 will go down in British history as the biggest miscarriage of justice.

While all the evidence for a full investigation exists, justice may superficially surface in a decade or few. As Britain’s leading military institutions refuse to admit liability, the vestiges of its presence in Iraq remain visible, particularly after Islamic State’s conquest of Mosul led to the return of British personnel to the country, this time in response to an official invitation.

The Iraqi community — Mukasa advised applying lessons from Windrush — must campaign to keep this injustice in the public consciousness if there is a chance of upending the postponement of justice by the British establishment.