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New inquiry into British army abuse in Iraq vindicates Panorama

Producer Arlen Harris was involved in the making of Panorama: On Whose Orders? - first broadcast in February 2008. Here he examines the possible impact of a recent High Court judgement on allegations of abuse levelled against British troops in Iraq in 2004 and the calls for a public inquiry.

Time can make a world of difference in an emotive, ongoing story.

More than a year ago the BBC succeeded in overturning a gagging order that would have made it impossible to report for Panorama on some of the most serious allegations of abuse by British soldiers to come out of the Iraq conflict.

Panorama's On Whose Orders? - first broadcast in February 2008 - centred around allegations made by captured prisoners following what was known as the Battle of Danny Boy near Majar al-Kabir on 14 May 2004.

The most serious allegations accuse British soldiers of murder and mutilation as well as abuse of detainees following the battle.

The MoD has vigorously denied wrongdoing by British soldiers and has said those who died in the three-hour gun battle had injuries consistent with the battleground after the British were ambushed by Medhi army insurgents.

Fast forward more than a year from that attempt to prevent Panorama's reporting on this story and, on 2 October, three High Court judges were openly discussing what form a full public inquiry into the claims of abuse should take.

The judges were critical of the Ministry of Defence for what they labelled "lamentable" behaviour and said there had been "serious breaches" in the MoD's duty of candour over the failure to disclose key information.

The hearing at the High Court is a part of a judicial review brought by six Iraqis who claim British soldiers murdered and assaulted prisoners captured during the fighting. Their lawyers have demanded a full public inquiry.

Panorama's On Whose Orders? probed those allegations after interviewing both British soldiers and Iraqi detainees. Producer David Monaghan had first sent a team out to Iraq in 2006 to examine the claims.

Reporting on such serious claims of abuse by British soldiers in conflict - soldiers who have seen close colleagues wounded or killed in the line of duty - was always going to produce strong views and reactions.

In the week before On Whose Orders? was broadcast and without having seen the completed programme, the Sun newspaper's coverage of the upcoming broadcast labelled the BBC the "Baghdad Broadcasting Corporation" and wrote: "Beeb 'Slurs' On Iraq Heroes".

The Daily Mail headline was more restrained:"Fury as human rights lawyers accuse British soldiers of executing up to 20 Iraqi prisoners in cold blood".

On the Friday before broadcast, solicitors Phil Shiner and Martyn Day held a press conference. They set out their clients' case and called for a public inquiry. The following day's Guardian headline read: "British Soldiers accused of Executing Civilians".

A lengthy inquiry by the Royal Military Police (RMP) into the claims of murder, mutilation and abuse had earlier found British soldiers did not have a case to answer.

But in their judgement last week, the High Court stated: "In our view, the RMP investigation in 2004/5 was not thorough and proficient."

They said that the RMP investigations did not start until five weeks after the alleged events and they failed to identify or interview all the people dealing with detainees at the British base.

The judges said the RMP also failed to seize all contemporaneous records or to ask the detainees what happened on the night of the incident.

The judges were critical of the Deputy Provost Marshal (investigations) of the RMP, Colonel Dudley Giles, for not disclosing relevant army documents in his witness statement in July 2008.

They referred in particular to army documents suggesting that more live prisoners may have been arrested on the battlefield than were later released from Camp Abu Naji.

The judges said Colonel Giles was an "unsatisfactory witness" who "lacked the necessary objectivity, proficiency and reliability". They further stated that "his evidence was seriously flawed" and suggested that in future proceedings "any court" should approach his evidence with "the greatest caution".

Colonel Giles was a principle witness for the MoD at the High Court hearing into allegations of abuses on 14 and 15 May 2004.

In July, the High Court ordered an independent public investigation into the allegations.

This followed the discovery of e-mails and memos to the Armed Forces Minister in late May 2004 describing evidence of possible mistreatment of the detainees which were not disclosed to the Iraqi claimants.

When it does begin, this will mark the second expensive public inquiry investigating claims of abuse in Iraq.

Both inquiries will have been preceded by lengthy investigations by the RMP - a situation that has led some lawyers and former military personnel to question the ability of soldiers to objectively investigate allegations against other soldiers.

In revisiting these allegations through public inquiries, the entire system of military justice will inevitably be called into question.

The MoD robustly argues that there is no evidence to support the allegations against British soldiers but Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth has conceded the need for a public examination of what happened around the Battle of Danny Boy.

The High Court hearing was adjourned until 16 October when a decision as to terms of reference of the inquiry and who might be heading it could be decided, bringing answers for the Iraqi claimants one step closer.

You can view a clip of On Whose Orders? here:

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