Iraq

More than £20 million of taxpayers' money was used to settle compensation claims against the British military from the Iraq War, it's emerged.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) settled 1,471 claims from Iraqi nationals between 2003/04 and 2016/17, paying out £21,949,879, according to figures obtained by the Press Association through a Freedom of Information (FOI) request. It said:

"The reason for the settlement of the overwhelming majority of claims received is not, as has been reported, that the MoD accepts that the claimants were maltreated."

The release of the figures comes after Leigh Day solicitors Martyn Day, Sapna Malik and Anna Crowther were cleared of any wrongdoing in pursuing compensation actions for claimants who were later said to have told "deliberate lies".

The decision finally drew a line under a 13-year legal fight sparked by the Battle of Danny Boy in May 2004, when British troops were given an order to remove the bodies of the 20 Iraqi dead and take them back to a nearby camp, along with nine prisoners of war.

Former colour sergeant Brian Wood, who fought in the battle as a lance corporal in the Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment, described the legal process as an "ordeal".

He added he was "just looking forward to getting on with my life now". Sgt Wood, who was one of five soldiers to be awarded the military cross for their actions during the Battle of Danny Boy, said:

"I was in disbelief, really, at these allegations because none of that happened.

"It was laughable to a degree but I had to take it serious [sic] because of how serious the allegations were."

He added he was "just looking forward to getting on with my life now".

The figures show most of the claims, totalling 1,145 over the six years until British withdrawal in 2009, were settled for £2.1 million by the MoD's area claims officer in Iraq and did not reach public attention in Britain.

The MoD has agreed £19.8 million in out-of-court settlements in 326 cases, out of a further 1,200 claims for wrongful imprisonment or mistreatment, brought before the UK courts.

These peaked in 2012/13 when 191 claimants received £9.9 million in payouts, which are subject to confidentiality agreements, while the latest settlement was a £30,000 payment in 2016/17.

Payouts were in line with a European Court of Human Rights decision in 2011 on unlawful detention but the Strasbourg court changed position in a similar case in 2014, and the MoD said it had since ceased payments.

The cost to the public purse is likely to be far higher, and has reportedly reached £100 million, but the MoD declined to give a figure for payments in relation to court costs, citing confidentiality.

Among the unsettled court claims were those of torture and murder by the detainees held at Camp Abu Naji, near Al Majar in southern Iraq after the Danny Boy battle.

Martyn Day
Martyn Day was cleared of any wrongdoing in pursuing compensation actions for claimants who were later said to have told "deliberate lies"

The detainees, who were insurgents with the Shia militia Mahdi Army, would go on to claim they had been mistreated and heard the torture and murder of their compatriots.

Among the dead was 19-year-old Hamid Al-Sweady, who gave his name to a public inquiry and was named after his uncle Khuder Al-Sweady claimed he had been murdered at the British camp.

Court claims were pursued by Leigh Day until the £31 million Al-Sweady Inquiry found them to be "entirely false" in December 2014.

The trio, and the firm, were cleared of all misconduct charges over their handling of the cases after they gave evidence to a seven-week hearing at the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal.

Patricia Robertson QC, defending the lawyers, said Leigh Day had received £9.5 million in fees after reaching settlements in more than 300 cases out of 950 brought by the firm.

The tribunal also heard the MoD had made settlement offers of £14,500 for each of the seven detainee claimants, as well as a £40,000 offer to suspected Mahdi Army insurgent Khuder Al-Sweady to settle his claim that his nephew Hamid Al-Sweady was tortured before his death at the hands of British troops.

Timothy Dutton QC, acting for the Solicitors Regulation Authority, said Leigh Day instructed its clients to make a "higher counter offer" in January 2013.

The claimants then made a counter offer of £200,000, Mr Dutton said. He added:

"Khuder Al-Sweady appeared to be the driving force behind an unrealistic counter offer, contrary to their own interests."

The MoD withdrew the offers in November 2013 as the claims began to unravel before the public inquiry.

Its FOI response confirmed:

"No monies have been paid to settle any claim of any type pursued by any Iraqi national involved in the Battle of Danny Boy on May 14 2004."

An MoD spokesman added: "The vast majority of UK personnel conducted themselves professionally in Iraq and we continue to vigorously defend opportunistic claims against them, but legally we had no alternative but to pay this compensation.

"The Defence Secretary has announced that IHAT (Iraq Historic Allegations Team) will close and that we intend to derogate from the European Convention on Human Rights to prevent it wrongly impacting our Armed Forces' ability to do their jobs."