A former British Army officer has denied that he or his troops were ‘deliberately uncooperative’ with the Al-Sweady investigation into allegations of systematic torture and murder by British troops in Iraq.
Appearing before the Al-Sweady Public Inquiry on Monday, Matthew Maer claimed that he did not order the destruction of photos of dead Iraqis.
The inquiry is investigating accusations by Iraqi detainees that they were beaten, tortured and some of them killed at a British base after a battle in 2004.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) denies the accusations.
The Al-Sweady Inquiry is considering allegations that soldiers from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment, following a three-hour gun battle known as the ‘Battle of Danny Boy’, had taken the Iraqi dead as well as the injured back to the British Camp Abu Naji.
The Iraqis accuse the British of torture and murder at Camp Abu Naji as well as later on at Shaibah Logistics.
Former brigadier Maer, who was commanding officer of First Battalion the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment (1PWRR) at the time, left the Army in 2012.
Lawyers acting for several Iraqi clients claim some were taken alive following the battle and mistreated or unlawfully killed at the nearby Camp Abu Naji (CAN) base.
The MoD has claimed that all deaths occurred on the battlefield.
It remains unclear who ordered the unusual decision of taking bodies as well as the injured from the battlefield back to the CAN base.
The British army claims it wanted to check whether one of the dead Iraqis was an insurgent thought to have been involved in the killing of six Royal Military Police officers in 2003.
Maer claimed to the inquiry that he thought the order had come from brigade headquarters in Basra, but had focused on dealing with its potential consequences rather than questioning it.
‘I was concerned because it was a sensitive issue in a number of ways, not least of which was religion which was the need to have the dead buried before sunset the following day.
‘So there were cultural and religious sensitivities as well,’ he said.
Maer said there ‘was no policy whatsoever’ to not make witnesses available to the Royal Military Police (RMP), which was conducting the investigation into allegations of wrongdoing.
He also said he did not remember giving an order to a fellow officer, Captain James Rands, to make sure any inappropriate photograph of enemy dead, wounded or prisoners were destroyed.
In a statement to the inquiry, dated November 2013, Maer said the allegations were a ‘slur’ on British troops.
‘Had the alleged mistreatment and murder taken place, I have no doubt that the truth would have come out by now,’ he claimed.
‘Otherwise, there would have to be a massive conspiracy amongst a very large number of people, holding for over nine years now, despite the RMP and the judicial reviews proceedings and this inquiry.’
Set up in 2010, the inquiry is named after one of the Iraqi men, 19-year-old Hamid al-Sweady, who is alleged to have been unlawfully killed while being held after the so-called Battle of Danny Boy.
Appearing before the inquiry in January, a former British soldier denied firing shots or hitting Iraqi detainees while questioning them after they were captured.
The soldier told the inquiry he ‘categorically denied’ hitting or physically threatening any of the nine detainees he interrogated.
The soldier, who is appearing under a secrecy deal, is called M004.
He claimed to the inquiry that although he did use a 1ft-long (30cm) pointed metal tent peg to bang on a table top and shouted and screamed at detainees as part of his ‘tactical questioning’ technique, he did not see this as excessive, although he was now aware from other public inquiries that it was unlikely that using a tent peg in this way would be ‘viewed as permissible’.
The inquiry has heard claims from several Iraqi detainees that M004 had a pistol with him and fired two shots into the ground while they were being questioned in a tent at the British army camp.
There were also allegations by a detainee that the interrogator beat him with a metal pipe.
But M004 claimed there was ‘no feasible way’ that a shot could be fired in the tent without someone hearing it and it being reported.
It was likely the tent peg was on a table and a detainee could see that, but it was never used to strike a detainee, he said.
He agreed the use of the tent peg fell within the category of a ‘harsh’ approach and that he was trying to scare the detainees by making a sudden loud noise while the prisoner was blindfolded.
Banging the tent peg on the table behind the prisoner made a ‘horrendous racket’ and would have been heard outside the interrogation tent and probably in the prisoner cell block, he said.
Some of the prisoners had physically jumped when he did it, he said. He agreed that the tent peg could be seen as a weapon.
He was not taught to use the tent peg in this way on a course he attended, M004 said, but he did not see it as outside his remit as a tactical questioner.
But he told counsel for the inquiry: ‘I believe nowadays that there is very little you could physically do without ending up sat in an inquiry’.
The witness told the inquiry that when the Iraqi detainees arrived for questioning he would first walk behind them and blow on the back of their neck – a tactic he had been taught on a course.
Blowing on the detainee’s neck allowed the interrogator to get inside the prisoner’s personal space so that he could feel the questioner’s presence, something which was ‘remarkably effective’ he said.
M004 agreed that there was a pattern in his questioning of walking behind the detainee, blowing on the back of their neck, banging the tent peg down on the table and then screaming and shouting over their left shoulder and into their ear.
He had not been taught to consider that shouting at a man close up or striking a table with a tent peg so as to induce fear was violence.
The witness agreed that anything that fell short of physical contact or violence which made the prisoner feel uncomfortable was acceptable.
M004 claimed he would never threaten a prisoner with any form of beating or assault, but he agreed that he might have told a detainee he would never see their family again.
‘And they would probably have believed you?’ asked counsel. ‘Yes sir,’ said M004.
Appearing before the inquiry late last year, Col Biggart, Brig Kennett’s chief of staff, told the inquiry no specific order was given to remove the bodies.
He said it had been decided to try to identify the dead to see if they were linked with the murder of six Royal Military Police officers the previous year by taking photographs of them.
‘To my mind the task was clear – get photographs of the insurgents; it was not to take the dead back to CAN,’ he said.
Col Biggart claimed he was later told that no cameras were available on the battlefield and, as it was getting dark, the plan was to take any bodies back to the base.
‘In the circumstances the decision to take the dead back to CAN seemed to me a reasonable course to take,’ he said.
Col Biggart said the consequences of the decision, including the effect handling the bodies had on British soldiers and the anger it prompted in the local community at the time, were unfortunate but could not have been foreseen.
The inquiry heard that, at the time, Col Biggart had been made aware that the commanding officer of the men involved had raised concerns about the psychological impact it had had on his men.
‘I am viewing the actions that were taken at the time given the information we had at the time.
‘Sitting here today, knowing what happened, one might have made a different decision, but that’s a different situation,’ he said.
‘It’s had consequences we couldn’t foresee, some of which, many of which were unfortunate, such as the suffering of the troops involved, I absolutely accept that.’
The Iraqis’ lawyer, John Dickinson, has said: ‘The essential complaint is that a number of Iraqis were taken from the battlefield alive and either in transit to the camp or at the camp were summarily executed.’