By David Leigh and Ed Pilkington
Move follows last week’s disclosure of a series of civilian shootings on WikiLeaks
The prospect of a judicial review into previously covered-up civilian shootings in Afghanistan has opened up after human rights campaigners launched an attempt to take the Ministry of Defence to court.
This follows the disclosure in the Guardian that a series of unusual civilian shootings involving two British army units, are documented in last week’s WikiLeaks publication of thousands of leaked US military files.
A formal letter was sent to the defence secretary, Liam Fox, at the weekend by a lawyer, Phil Shiner, on behalf of the peace campaigner Maya Evans. Shiner said: “I am sure we will be able to get this into court.”
The campaigners say the killings “require to be investigated as suspected war crimes” under the legislation that set up the international criminal court. They call on the MoD to conduct a proper investigation of the allegations.
Since the details of civilian shootings recorded in the war logs were revealed, MoD officials have not disputed their general accuracy, but ministers have failed to give any explanation, or order any public investigation.
Shiner told Fox the documents reproduced in the Guardian “Identify … the killing of at least 26 civilians and the wounding of a further 20 by British forces”.
This is a relatively small fraction of the hundreds of civilian killings admitted to by US forces in the course of filing war logs which were later leaked. Most British units barely figure in the civilian casualty reports collected in the field by US intelligence.
But two detachments of UK soldiers figure repeatedly, and it is unclear whether this exceptional pattern was ever fully investigated. One US soldier reported in Kabul that they could not obtain the full story of a shooting because “the investigation is controlled by the British”.
The US field reports detail a series of four shootings of individual innocent civilians in the streets of Kabul, during the space of little more than a month in 2007, at a time when the Coldstream Guards were newly patrolling the capital. The incidents culminated in the death of an Afghan general’s son.
In the US documents it is alleged that the following year saw a six-month period in which Royal Marine commando units took a regular toll on innocent motorists, shooting innocent drivers and motorcyclists on eight occasions for approaching too close to convoys.
Earlier this year, in separate proceedings, the high court gave permission for a judicial review of the government’s failure to hold a public inquiry into the British army’s detention policies in Iraq, amid allegations that large numbers of civilians were tortured.
The court said it could be argued that “the alleged ill-treatment was systemic, and not just at the whim of individual soldiers”. It criticised the effectiveness of MoD proposals to investigate the claims.
By David Leigh and Rob Evans
Afghanistan war logs: Civilians caught in firing line of British troops
Secret archives contain accounts of shootings or bombings on at least 21 separate occasions
The US army’s archives contain descriptions of at least 21 separate occasions in which British troops are said to have shot or bombed Afghan civilians, including women and children.
The logs identify at least 26 people killed and another 20 wounded as a result. Some casualties were accidentally caused by air strikes, but many also are said to involve British troops firing on unarmed drivers or motorcyclists who come “too close” to convoys or patrols. Their injuries result from what are described as “warning shots” or “disabling shots” fired into the engine block, as required by the military’s “escalation of force” regulations.
The number of dead and wounded alleged to have been caused by the British include 16 children, at least three women and a mentally ill man. The number is a small fraction of the 369 civilian casualties listed in the logs as due to coalition – mostly US – action in total.
More than 320 UK soldiers have also been killed since British troops were deployed to Helmand. But the war logs describe two disturbing clusters of British shootings that do not appear to have been properly investigated.
There is an unusual group of four shootings all in Kabul, in barely more than a single month, October 2007. The perpetrators are not identified in the logs and on one occasion the Americans report: “Investigation is controlled by the British. We [are] not able to get the complete story.”
Among UK squads in Kabul at that time were a detachment of the Coldstream Guards. It is not known whether they were involved in any of the shootings, but their unofficial blog, ShinyCapstar, describes the atmosphere that October at Camp Souter in Kabul: “The overriding threat is that of suicide bombers of which there have been a number in the recent past.”
The first incident is reported on 4 October 2007. The US log says a non-combatant was wounded with two or three bullets and taken by “the UK company” to Camp Warehouse. “An investigation is pending.”
On 21 October, three civilian interpreters were said to be wounded when their vehicle “was fired upon by a UK vehicle near Camp Blackhorse … Investigation is controlled by the British. ” Four days later “a warning shot was fired by a British soldier” which ricocheted and wounded a passerby. And on 6 November: “UK Coy reported force escalation”. According to the Americans, the son of an Afghan general died of the subsequent gunshot wounds: “There could be some demonstration.”
A second cluster of eight shootings, involve Royal Marine commandos in Helmand in the six months from October 2008. Further shootings involve British “mentoring units” sent to work with Afghan police and soldiers. There are also four recorded instances of air strikes called in by the UK resulting in casualties to civilians.
A Harrier bombing is listed as killing eight people. In another an F16 jet called in by a Rifles squad radioed afterwards that it could see “bodies being picked up in the target area”. Seven civilians were wounded and one killed in that attack.
A further Apache helicopter strike outside Kandahar was claimed to have killed three Taliban: but it proved later that two women and two children had died.
The Guardian put allegations of the two clusters of British shootings to the MoD three days ago. It said: “We have been unable to corroborate these claims in the short time available and it would be inappropriate to speculate on specific cases without further verification of the alleged actions.”