U.K.'s Top Lawyer Accused of Telling Brit Commanders Not to Protect Iraqis' Human Rights

Editor's note: This story is shaping up to be a significant scandal in the United Kingdom. It should be noted that Lord Goldsmith has vigorously denied the charges contained in this article.

The attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, is facing accusations that he told the Army its soldiers were not bound by the Human Rights Act when arresting, detaining and interrogating Iraqi prisoners.

Previously confidential emails, seen by the Independent, between London and British military headquarters in Iraq soon after the start of the war, suggest Lord Goldsmith's advice was to adopt a "pragmatic" approach when handling prisoners, saying it was not necessary to follow the "higher standards" of the protection of the Human Rights Act.

That, according to human rights lawyers, was tantamount to the attorney general advising the military to ignore the Human Rights Act and to simply observe the Geneva Conventions. It was also contrary to advice given by the Army's senior lawyer in Iraq, who urged the adoption of higher standards.

Today, rights groups and experts in international law will call on the government to disclose Lord Goldsmith's legal opinion, which they say could have helped create a culture of abuse of Iraqis by British soldiers.

Last month, the first British soldier convicted of a war crime was jailed for a year and dismissed from the Army after being convicted of mistreating Iraqi civilians, including the hotel worker Baha Mousa, who died of injuries at the hands of British soldiers. In 2005, three British soldiers were jailed by a court martial in Germany after "trophy" photographs emerged, showing Iraqi detainees being abused at an aid center called Camp Bread Basket. There are about 60 more allegations of abuse being prepared for legal claims by rights groups.

Last week, Parliament's Joint Committee on Human Rights wrote to the government to ask for an "explanation" about the evidence of torture in the Baha Mousa court martial.

Andrew Dismore MP, chair of the committee, said: "We have asked the Ministry of Defense to explain what appear to be stark inconsistencies in the evidence presented to our committee about the use of inhuman and degrading interrogation techniques prohibited as long ago as 1972."

But emails sent just after the invasion indicate Lord Goldsmith's belief that British soldiers in Iraq were not bound by the Human Rights Act. The documents also show a wide differing of opinion between him and Lt. Col. Nicholas Mercer, the Army's most senior legal adviser on the ground, who wrote to say he felt "the ECHR would apply" to troops in Iraq.

On one occasion, Rachel Quick, the legal adviser to Permanent Joint Headquarters who had regularly sought and been given guidance from Lord Goldsmith on the treatment of Iraqi prisoners, wrote to Col. Mercer giving her interpretation of the attorney general's advice. His view, she said, "was that the HRA was only intended to protect rights conferred by the convention and must look to international law to determine the scope of those rights."

Quick went on say that the advice of the attorney general, supported by professor Christopher Greenwood (the barrister who advised Lord Goldsmith on the legality of the war), was that, in the circumstances, the HRA did not apply. "For your purposes," she wrote, "I would suggest this means no requirement for you to provide guidance on the application of the HRA. I hope this is clear."

Quick, who in November 2003, was appointed OBE, added: "With regard to the detention of civilians, I will look at your documents in more detail and discuss with FCO, MoD legal advisers. Although my initial thoughts are you are trying to introduce U.K. procedures to a Geneva Convention IV context. Whilst this may be the perfect solution it may not be the pragmatic solution. Again we raised this issue with the AG and got a helpful steer on the procedures. I'll aim to try to produce guidance, taking into account their advice on the detention of civilians."

Such were the concerns of legal advisers on the ground over the attorney general's views that the MoD arranged for the senior legal adviser at the foreign office, Gavin Hood, to visit Permanent Joint Headquarters to settle any worries. Crucially, the emails make clear Lord Goldsmith's legal opinion was not shared by Col. Mercer, who contacted his superiors in London to ask for guidance after he had witnessed the hooding of 40 Iraqis at a British POW camp in March. The men were all forced to kneel in the sun and had their hands cuffed behind their backs. Worried this could leave the soldiers vulnerable to prosecutions, he told the MoD that in his view soldiers should behave in accordance with the "higher standard" of the Human Rights Act.

But the response from the military's Permanent Joint Headquarters in Qatar was that Lord Goldsmith had told the MoD the human rights law did not apply and soldiers should simply observe the Geneva Conventions.

When Col. Mercer said he disagreed with the government's most senior law officer, he was told that "perhaps you should put yourself up as the next attorney general." Col. Mercer also asked for a British judge to be flown out to oversee the procedures for the detention of Iraqi prisoners, but this also was blocked at a high level.

Col. Mercer's interpretation of the law has since proved correct. Thirty months after he first raised his concerns during the Iraq conflict, the Court of Appeal ruled that British soldiers were bound by the Human Rights Act, which bans torture or degrading of prisoners.

The emails, part of court documents being prepared to support a judicial review in the high court this year, reveal considerable disquiet among the military about the attorney general's advice.

The documents show that as early as March 2003, the International Committee of the Red Cross had begun investigating complaints of possible war crimes by British soldiers at the same POW camp in southeast Iraq that had prompted Col. Mercer's original intervention. The government was so worried about this that it flew out a political adviser from London to address the Red Cross' concerns about hooding and other practices.

International law

* Torture is defined by international law as any threat or use of severe pain, physical or mental, against an individual with the intention of obtaining a confession or other information. Under the U.N. Convention Against Torture, 40 states, including Britain, have agreed not to engage in such practices.

During military conflict the third and fourth Geneva Conventions protect prisoners of war and civilians who are held by soldiers. Torture is also defined as a war crime by the International Criminal Court, which describes it as the unlawful infliction of severe pain.

Many of the incidents of abuse committed by British soldiers on Iraqi civilians may fall outside the strict definition of torture under international law.

But under the European Convention of Human Rights, incorporated in the Human Rights Act 1998, there is no requirement that the threat or use of pain should be severe for an act to fall foul of the law.

Lord Goldsmith argued that because U.K. forces did not have full control of Iraq, the country was not part of its jurisdiction and therefore the Human Rights Act did not apply. He lost this argument when the Court of Appeal ruled that Iraqi civilians held in custody and the soldiers detaining them were subject to the Human Rights Act. The case is to be settled later this year by the House of Lords. If the government loses, then it is expected that full and independent inquiries will be held into the deaths, disappearances and torture of Iraqis by British soldiers.

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