A conspiracy cooked up by ‘activist left-wing human rights’ lawyers?

Government and media have denied, dismissed and derided allegations of abuse by British soldiers in Iraq. Over 7 days we’ll interrogate a very British scandal. Day 1: Attack the lawyers. This article was first published in Open Democracy.

When Prime Minister Theresa May addressed her party’s conference in Birmingham on 5th October 2016, her attack on human rights lawyers received the biggest cheer.

“We will never again — in any future conflict — let those activist left wing human rights lawyers harangue and harass the bravest of the brave, the men and women of our armed forces,” she said to rapturous applause.

That was Wednesday.

On the Tuesday, defence secretary Michael Fallon had said that in future conflicts Britain would exempt itself from parts of the European Convention on Human Rights in order to “protect” armed troops from “industrial scale claims”, as seen from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And a couple of weeks earlier on Friday 23 September 2016, Theresa May met with the Chiefs of the Defence staff. She was “determined to stop ‘vexatious claims’ being brought against the armed forces”, she told them. Indeed May had made known her intentions outside the UN Building in New York a couple of days before. The attacks were not a recent occurence.

A Long Story

On New Year’s Day the Independent led with ‘exclusive’ front page stories about the possible prosecution of British soldiers for the unlawful killing and abuse of Iraqi civilians between 2003 and 2009.

Over successive weekends, it ‘exposed’ the depth of the scandal, numbering the allegations at over 250 deaths and 1200 incidents of ill-treatment. More than 50 killings, the Independent said, had been referred to the Service Prosecution Authority (the Armed Forces’ equivalent to the Crown Prosecution Service) to decide whether to start criminal proceedings against ex-servicemen.

Complainants alleged torture, sexual assault, rape.

Complainants alleged torture, sexual assault, rape. Lt Col Nicholas Mercer, who’d served in Iraq during 2003 as one of the most senior army lawyers, said in a newspaper interview that civilian detainees had been subjected to terrible treatment at the hands of the British. He’d witnessed abuse in the detention camps set up in south east Iraq.

Two days later, a Daily Mail headline shouted:

“End witch-hunt of our soldiers: Fury as ‘ambulance-chasing lawyers’ try to prosecute UK’s Iraq heroes – and are handed taxpayers’ millions to do it”

“Legal witch hunt”

The Mail described the investigations as a “legal witch hunt against UK troops” and called for lawyers to “stop harassing soldiers who had simply been doing their duty”.

The Sun joined in and questioned the volume of torture and unlawful killing claims, quoting Colonel Richard Kemp, who headed UK operations in Afghanistan: “The sheer number of allegations — I cannot believe any significant number can be valid.”

It wasn’t long before interest shifted to the law firms acting for the Iraqi civilians making the allegations. Ambulance chasers, rogues, milking legal aid to humiliate the brave soldiers who’d served their country. These shysters were the bad guys as far as the Mail was concerned.

Government ministers seemed to agree. Penny Mordaunt, Armed Forces Minister at the time, told the Commons on 27 January 2016 that a task force was to be set up to find ways of “protecting our armed forces from litigation motivated by malice and money”.

The then Prime Minister David Cameron demanded an end to the “spurious” claims, as he referred to them. He wanted restrictions on foreign nationals drawing on legal aid to bring actions against Armed Forces personnel. And he called for professional disciplinary action against the principal law firms acting for the Iraqi claimants too.

For a while, the lawyers became the story. Parts of the press, politicians and ex-soldiers accused solicitors’ firms Public Interest Lawyers and Leigh Day & Co. of breaching professional ethics, of touting for business in Iraq and, by implication, encouraging false claims of abuse.

Legal misconduct? No direct evidence

The Telegraph had already claimed to have seen a government dossier in March 2015 purportedly substantiating the allegations of misconduct by the lawyers, though it acknowledged there was “no direct evidence that Public Interest Lawyers or their agents are making unsolicited approaches to potential clients” inside Iraq.

The Solicitors Regulatory Authority, the body responsible for policing the profession, began investigations regardless. In May 2016 it referred two principal solicitors and an associate from Leigh Day & Co. to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal. They deny any wrongdoing and a hearing is marked down for 30 days (an unprecedented period for the Tribunal) beginning in March next year.

In August 2016 the Solicitors Regulatory Authority also brought unspecified charges against Phil Shiner, principal of Public Interest Lawyers. Shiner denies any wrongdoing (all details have been kept confidential so far). His case will be heard by a disciplinary tribunal in 2017.

Richard Littlejohn of the Mail has campaigned against Shiner for years. “Let’s give this shyster a shiner,” he wrote in 2015, labelling Public Interest Lawyers a “Left-wing law firm” making “vexatious allegations of ‘war crimes’ against blameless British troops.” A headline from 2013 read: “Phil Shiner and the Great Human Rights Swindle.” Littlejohn wrote: “Shiner is always on the lookout for a jihadist with a grievance which can be used to discredit the Army and win some hard cash.”

In August of this year Public Interest Lawyers ceased business after the Legal Aid Agency withdrew government funding. Next day, Littlejohn said in his column: “The law firm that has hounded British troops with false allegations of war crimes is going out of business.

“There are reported to be around 1,500 ‘abuse’ cases either instigated or inspired by PIL. All will now be thrown out or withdrawn.”

Littlejohn’s last assertion was premature. Jeremy Wright, Attorney General, had already advised the government that the on-going criminal investigations couldn’t be halted, according to the Telegraph.

Public Interest Lawyers’ closure prompted even Theresa May, recently appointed as Prime Minister, to be “very much pleased” so the Guardian recorded.

Michael Fallon, Defence Secretary, said: “This is the right outcome for our armed forces, who show bravery and dedication in difficult circumstances. For too long, we’ve seen our legal system abused to impugn them falsely. We are now seeing progress and we will be announcing further measures to stamp out this practice.”

And yet despite all the political and media pressure the Iraq allegations haven’t gone away.

Tomorrow, the death of Ahmed Jabbar Kareem Ali and how British soldiers watched an Iraqi boy drown.

Banner photo by The U.S. Army.

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