We will protect soldiers, says Fallon as he shuts down Iraq inquiry team

Posted By: February 14, 2017

We will protect soldiers, says Fallon as he shuts down Iraq inquiry team

Sean O’Neill. The Times. London. Saturday, February 11, 2017

British soldiers will be protected from bogus and vexatious legal claims arising from active service in Iraq, Afghanistan and Northern Ireland; the defense secretary said last night.

Sir Michael Fallon announced the closure of the controversial Iraq Historic Investigations Team (IHAT) and the discontinuation of hundreds of abuse claims from Afghanistan.

He also signaled a determination to ensure that service personnel did not become the focus of investigations into unsolved murders in the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

The Ministry of Defence said it was committed to ensuring that, in future, the armed forces were “not subject to persistent human rights claims that undermine their ability to do their job”.

This morning the veterans minister, Mark Lancaster, apologized to those “impacted” but defended the government’s handling of allegations against troops.

The move comes a week after Phil Shiner, the solicitor known as the “scourge of the army,” was struck off for corruption and dishonesty in bringing forward false claims of misconduct by soldiers in Iraq. It coincides with the appeal this week by the former Royal Marine Alexander Blackman against his murder conviction for shooting dead a wounded Taliban fighter in Helmand province in 2011.

IHAT was set up by the government in 2010 to investigate allegations of abuse — from murder to low-level violence — made by Iraqi civilians against UK armed forces personnel from 2003 to July 2009. Its operations have cost the taxpayer some £35 million to date without any prosecutions.

Sir Michael said IHAT would now be wound up by the summer after a dramatic reduction in its workload following the exposure of Mr. Shiner, whose Public Interest Lawyers firm brought most of the 3,400 allegations under investigation.

IHAT had expected to be dealing with 60 major investigations by this summer, but the caseload will be fewer than 20, which will be taken forward by the Royal Navy Police. The MoD said it had provided the bulk of the evidence that led to Mr. Shiner being struck off and acted to wind up IHAT as soon as possible. Sir Michael said the end of it “will be a relief for our soldiers who have had allegations hanging over them for too long. Now we are taking action to stop such abuse of our legal system from happening again.”

Mr. Lancaster said IHAT was “completely abused” by lawyers but that the MoD had acted correctly.

“It was set up for entirely the right reasons. Without having IHAT, potentially our troops could have been subjected to inquiries by the International Criminal Court,” he told the Today program on BBC Radio 4.

The MoD said that 90 per cent of the 675 allegations of abuse against soldiers in Afghanistan would be discontinued. Another firm involved in some of those cases, Leigh Day, is also facing allegations from the Solicitors Regulation Authority of improper conduct.

Martyn Day, the senior partner of Leigh Day, faces professional ruin if found guilty of improper conduct at a seven-week misconduct hearing in April.

Ministers have also expressed their determination to ensure that legacy investigations in Northern Ireland are not focused disproportionately on former soldiers and police officers. There have been complaints that former servicemen are being “hounded” after two were charged with the murder in 1972 of a member of the Official IRA in Belfast while a number of former paratroopers are under police investigation over the Bloody Sunday killings.

The decision to shut down IHAT came as the Commons defense select committee published its report into the work of the unit. Johnny Mercer, the MP who chaired the subcommittee investigating the unit, said that the Iraq inquiry process had shown “an almost total disregard for the welfare of soldiers and their families.”

An IHAT spokesman said that urgent discussions had been held after the Shiner case and it concluded that “much of the evidence presented in the allegations must now be considered tainted and no longer credible.”

Leigh Day said it would be defending itself fully and vigorously at the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal. A spokesman said: “The cases we are taking in relation to alleged abuses against Iraqi citizens are brought solely against the MoD and not individual soldiers.