Top military police officer says policy of quick investigations was written for a ‘more benign environment’
British soldiers were under “almost constant bombardment” in southern Iraq and it was unsurprising they did not want speedy investigations into shooting incidents, the army’s most senior military police officer there told a public inquiry on Tuesday.
“In Iraq, there were so many shots being fired on a day-to-day basis and so many [shooting] contacts the soldiers were facing that it was almost overwhelming”, said Lt Col Sally Purnell. She was giving evidence to an inquiry into allegations that the soldiers killed and mistreated unarmed Iraqis in May 2004 after the battle of Danny Boy, the name of a checkpoint north of Basra.
The official policy of quick investigations “was written for a more benign environment and completely unworkable”, Purnell said. However, while she sympathised with the soldiers demanding a delay before being questioned about the shootings in the battle, she emphasised the need for an investigation into how soldiers later collected the bodies of dead Iraqis from the battlefield and how they treated prisoners.
The inquiry, in London, heard that an International Committee of the Red Cross doctor found on the prisoners “injuries to wrists indicating excessive force in manhandling them”. The al-Sweady inquiry – named after a 19-year-old Iraqi allegedly killed in the battle – was set up after the high court sharply attacked the Ministry of Defence for failing to conduct its own proper inquiry. The MoD denies the allegations.
Lucy Bowen, a military police special investigations officer, told the inquiry on Monday that senior army officers in Iraq “slammed the door” and blocked a military police investigation into the treatment of prisoners captured after a fierce battle in Iraq, and then tried to deny having done so, a public inquiry into the incident has heard.
The inquiry also heard that Major James Coote, of 1 Battalion Princess of Wales Royal Regiment, told his soldiers: “No one is to talk to the police until briefed by me … there is nothing to hide – we are simply ensuring that nothing comes back to haunt us in a few months’ time.”
Asked about the order, Purnell said she could only assume that Coote was trying to protect his soldiers. Coote has told the inquiry that he had given his order out of a duty of care to his soldiers, many of whom were “young men upset by events”.
Major (now Colonel) Simon Hutchings, a senior officer in the army’s 1 Mechanised Brigade then based in Basra, told the inquiry on Tuesday that a speedy military police investigation would have “slowed the tempo” of military operations.
The hearing continues.