UK Politics

Military prosecutions: 'Unfair' investigations to be barred

Penny Mordaunt Image copyright Reuters

British troops and veterans will be given stronger legal protections against prosecution, Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt has said.

The proposed law would protect them from investigation over actions on the battlefield abroad after 10 years, except in "exceptional circumstances".

Ms Mordaunt said it would prevent "repeated or unfair investigations".

The protections, which will be put to a public consultation, would not apply to alleged offences in Northern Ireland.

The defence secretary said she wanted the protection to be extended to troops who had served in Northern Ireland but warned the issue was "not going to be resolved over night".

On taking office earlier this month, after the sacking of Gavin Williamson, Ms Mordaunt said preventing members of the armed forces from being "pursued unfairly" over claims of wrongdoing would be her "personal priority".

The new protections apply to actions carried out in the course of duty more than a decade ago.

In these cases, there would be a statutory presumption against prosecution for current or former armed forces personnel.

But in exceptional circumstances, such as where compelling new evidence had emerged, the protections could be set aside.

In a statement, Ms Mordaunt said: "It is high time that we change the system and provide the right legal protections to make sure the decisions our service personnel take in the battlefield will not lead to repeated or unfair investigations down the line."

In 2016, the government committed to taking up a right to suspend parts of the European Convention on Human Rights before the UK embarked on military operations.

The Ministry of Defence said the suspension, known as "derogation", would protect British troops from the kind of "persistent" legal claims that followed operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

An inquiry into allegations against Iraq war veterans was shut down in 2017 after a lawyer representing many of the complainants was found to have acted dishonestly.

Legal protection for serving and former British soldiers has long been promised, but has proved hard to deliver.

Penny Mordaunt knows that and has made it her priority to do something quickly.

The proposals she is making, though, are limited to allegations of wrongdoing by British troops on the battlefield which happened more than 10 years ago.

That could help protect soldiers who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There are, however, still dozens of investigations ongoing from both wars, and some will question whether they should be abandoned. And then there is Northern Ireland.

It is the prosecution of veterans who served during the Troubles that has so incensed Tory backbench MPs. And on that issue she has not been able to offer any solution.

Speaking at the Royal United Services Institute, in London, the defence secretary said she hoped the measures proposed could offer a way forward for those who had served in Northern Ireland.

"The problem is that we have failed to make progress on the whole 'lawfare' issue because we have been held up waiting for other things to happen," she said.

"It is not going to be resolved overnight.

"It is a personal priority of mine that we get this resolved and we stop this chilling effect that is claiming veterans who really deserve our care and respect."

Six former soldiers who served in Northern Ireland during the Troubles are currently facing prosecution.

The cases relate to Daniel Hegarty; Bloody Sunday; John Pat Cunningham; Joe McCann (involving two ex-soldiers); and Aidan McAnespie.

Not all the charges are murder.

The Public Prosecution Service in Northern Ireland said that of 26 so-called legacy cases it has taken decisions on since 2011, 13 related to republicans, eight to loyalists, and five are connected to the Army.

The proceedings have been criticised by some Tory MPs, including former Army officer Johnny Mercer, who earlier this month said he would not co-operate with the government until it ended the prosecutions.

After Prime Minister's Questions, DUP MP Gavin Robinson raised his concern that "the proposals to protect veterans" would not apply in Northern Ireland.

"It shows scant disregard for people the length and breadth of the UK who stood to protect our interests and our democracy," he said.

What is the Iraq Historical Allegations Team (IHAT)?

By BBC Reality Check's Rachel Schraer

The Iraq Historical Allegations Team (IHAT) was set up to investigate allegations of potential criminal offences by members of the UK armed forces in Iraq between 2003 and 2009.

By July 2017, IHAT had received allegations ranging from ill-treatment to unlawful killing relating to 3,405 victims, though it's not clear how many military personnel in total were being investigated.

Around 70% of the allegations never reached full investigation because it was judged that there was no case to answer or that pursuing a full investigation was not "proportionate".

For those investigations that were completed, any cases where there was sufficient evidence of potential serious criminal acts were referred to the Director of Service Prosecutions.

The team has faced repeated criticism - from some for pursuing soldiers through the courts, and from others for a lack of results.

A smaller-scale inquiry was also carried out in relation to allegations of offences by soldiers in Afghanistan, as part of Operation Northmoor, an independent investigation conducted by the Royal Military Police.

The Royal Military Police had received 675 allegations as of July 2017, of which it has discounted more than 90% due to lack of evidence of a criminal or disciplinary offence.

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