LONDON – Lawyers released evidence Friday that they say shows British soldiers may have tortured and executed up to 20 Iraqis after a battle in 2004 — the most serious allegations of abuse made against British forces in Iraq.
Attorneys for five Iraqi men detained by British troops after the battle say witness testimony, death certificates and video footage of mutilated bodies all support the claims. They are demanding a public inquiry.
The British military strongly denies the accusations, and says the dead were insurgents killed in a gun battle after ambushing British troops.
"We are of the view that our clients' allegations that the British army is responsible for the torture and death of up to 20 Iraqis may well be true," said Martyn Day, a lawyer for the five, who say they were detained at the British army's Abu Naji base at the time of the alleged executions.
Day and another attorney, Phil Shiner, are representing the five men in a damages suit against the British military. All say they were laborers who were innocently caught up in the violence.
The lawyers have also asked the High Court to order a public inquiry into the May 14, 2004, battle near the town of at Al Majar Al Kabir.
The Ministry of Defense says British soldiers fought Iraqi insurgents after a convoy was ambushed along the main road between Baghdad and the southern city of Basra. The military said the close-quarter fighting — dubbed the battle of Danny Boy after the checkpoint where it took place — left three British troops wounded. Several soldiers have been decorated for bravery in the battle, which included the British army's first bayonet charge in two decades.
On Friday, the lawyers released a dossier of evidence including witness statements from the five men. All reported being beaten and blindfolded during detention at Abu Naji. They said they heard screams of agony, strangling sounds and gunshots that all five interpreted as evidence detainees were being executed.
One, Hussein Fadel Abbass, said he "heard the terrible sound of someone being choked or strangled" followed by gunshots.
"I am totally convinced that I was hearing bullets being fired at close range into a number of Iraqis," he said.
"I believed people were being killed," said another, Atiyah Sayid Abdelreza. "I have never heard anything like that sound ever before in my life."
Day said the testimony pointed to about 15 people being killed, and evidence from death certificates raised the number to 20.
The British army says it picked up 20 bodies from the battlefield, along with nine survivors, and handed the corpses over to Iraqi authorities the next day.
Iraqi doctors recorded signs of torture, including facial mutilation, on several of the corpses. A video shot by a local Iraqi and released by the lawyers shows several of the bodies with bloodied faces.
Day said some of the injuries appeared "highly unusual in a battlefield," including gunshots to the head at close range, eyes gouged out, sex organs cut off and torture wounds.
The Ministry of Defense said the wounds of Iraqis killed in the fighting had been shown to an independent pathologist who confirmed they were consistent with injuries sustained in combat.
Claims of abuse were first made shortly after the battle in 2004. A Royal Military Police investigation found no wrongdoing by British forces. Military police began a new inquiry into the five men's claims in December.
A defense spokesman said it would be inappropriate to comment on the allegations while the investigation was under way.
The British Broadcasting Corp., which plans to broadcast a documentary about the incident next week, said it had not found proof that prisoners had been killed, but saw evidence prisoners were mistreated.
Producers saw "no proof that prisoners died at the hands of their captors at or after the Battle of Danny Boy," a BBC spokesman said.
Shiner said he could not be certain the killings had taken place, but if they had, "it is one of the most appalling chapters in the British Army's history."
"It may be that none of this happened," Shiner said. "We need a public inquiry to establish the facts."