Tortured Iraqis free to sue UK for millions


Last updated at 07:37 14 June 2007

Prisoners detained by British forces anywhere in the world can sue the Ministry of Defence, Law Lords have ruled.

They will be able to bring claims under the Human Rights Act, which covers everything from torture to racial discrimination.

Military insiders fear the ruling - which followed years of wrangling - could unleash a torrent of cases, adding to the pressure faced by UK forces in global trouble-spots.

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Baha Mousa

Law Lords ruled that Labour's Human Rights Act - which incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law - extends to British forces outside Europe where a suspect is in custody.

The test case they considered involved the death of Iraqi hotel receptionist Baha Mousa.

He died in British army custody in Basra in 2003 having allegedly been beaten for more than 30 hours. A post-mortem examination revealed 93 separate injuries.

His family used human rights laws to demand the MoD hold a full public inquiry and won their case at the High Court and Court of Appeal.

But Government lawyers appealed to the Lords, claiming Mr Mousa's death in Iraq was not covered by the Human Rights Act.

The Lords ruled in favour of Mr Mousa's fama judge. MoD insiders fear this could become a

"magnet" for anti-war campaigners and achieve little.

But senior serving and retired senior officers

are more concerned over the wider implications of enforcing human rights laws on the frontline.

Admiral Sir Alan West, who retired as head of the Royal Navy last year, said: "I am very wary of making it even harder for our servicemen and women in terms of what I've called legal encirclement.

"I have no doubt whatsoever that we should operate within a proper legal framework, and I believe pretty well always we've done that.

"But I am concerned that there are more and more constraints on our people, who are trying to do their duty as best they can.

"We shouldn't be in a position where we're asking men to risk their lives, to take important

decisions very rapidly while being terribly worried all the time that anything they do may be taken much later and pored over in the cold light of day, in legal case lasting weeks and weeks.

"Do we want to do something like an opt-out? Of course we must always act within the constraints of the law, but I do wonder whether we might need to look at this more closely."

Sir Alan said Britain's existing court martial

system worked well and questioned whether it needed to be changed.

One senior serving Army officer who recently commanded a formation in southern Iraq said he was very concerned by the ruling.

He added: "Increasingly we face a situation where events on operations, where soldiers have to make split-second decisions, are likely to be judged and argued over years later by civilian lawyers with no understanding of operations, using human rights laws which weren't designed for this purpose."

Other European countries, including France, Spain and Portugal, specifically exempted their armed forces before they signed the Human Rights Convention.

Lawyers believe prisoners held by UK forces abroad will now be able to use the full extent of the Human Rights Act to sue the MoD and seek compensation.

In Britain, prisoners have used the same laws to bring a string of controversial claims.

One group of 200 drug addicts won £750,000 from the Home Office because their enforced prison detox meant they suffered withdrawal symptoms.

Phil Shiner, the human rights lawyer who is representing Mr Mousa's father, police colonel Daoud Mousa, hailed the decision as "a massive breakthrough in my clients' efforts to secure accountability for deaths and torture in detention".

Colonel Mousa, speaking from Basra said he was very pleased with the judgment.

He added: "It means that I have not lost hope of getting justice for my son."

A separate claim for compensation over Mr Mousa's death is pending.