British soldiers could face charges for war crimes that were allegedly committed during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, according to the head of a UK government unit that handles claims of torture and unlawful killing.
Mark Warwick, a former police detective who runs the Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT), told The Independent in an interview on Saturday that there's sufficient evidence to justify charges against British troops for the abuse and murder of Iraqi civilians.
"There are serious allegations that we are investigating across the whole range of IHAT investigations, which incorporates homicide," Warwick said. "I feel there is significant evidence to be obtained to put a strong case before the Service Prosecuting Authority to prosecute and charge."
The UK Ministry of Defense created IHAT in 2010 to be an investigative agency that operates independently of the military. According to a 2015 report, IHAT has received more than 1,500 reports of possible war crimes and incidents of detainee abuse.
An inquiry into the allegations started in 2006, but was soon abandoned without yielding any results or a formal investigation. The International Criminal Court (ICC) reopened its inquiry in 2014, and released a report that same year that that said it was looking into a litany of abuses allegedly carried out by British forces across different UK-controlled facilities between 2003 and 2008.
According to a dossier sent to the ICC last September and obtained by VICE News, the alleged abuses included burning, electrocution, mock execution, threats to the families of detainees, sexual assault, and "forced exposure to pornography." IHAT's 2015 report said the agency received 19 reports of rape in detention — with both male and female victims — and 26 cases of other sexual violence, including forced masturbation and forced oral sex.
Scores of detainees were allegedly denied the legal protections afforded by the Geneva Convention, and 259 Iraqi civilians were allegedly killed by UK personnel, including 47 who died in British custody.
IHAT's caseload of allegations is now 10 times what it was when the inquiry was first launched — and it's expected to keep rising. Angela Stevens, from London-based firm Public Interest Lawyers, which is working in conjunction with the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, previously told VICE News that, as awareness of the ICC inquiry increases, more Iraqis are coming forwards with their own allegations of abuse
Watch the VICE News dispatch Retaking Ramadi From the Islamic State: The Battle for Iraq:
"Even though these deaths in some cases occurred 10 years ago, people are only now finding out now they can come forward and make complaints about it," Stevens said.
IHAT had planned to complete its investigations by 2016, but Warwick says this deadline won't be met. The organization has funding to carry it through until 2019. "Over the next 12 to 18 months, we will review all the caseload to better understand the picture," he told The Independent. "Then I think we can say whether 2019 seems realistic."
Human rights organizers, eager to press charges against offending officers, have bemoaned the organization's slow progress. Warwick appealed for patience. "I think people need to understand the complexity, the volume and the geography aspects of this," Warwick said. "You can't underestimate putting those three factors together and trying to conduct ethical investigations."
Not every case will result in an investigation. Warwick said the "proportionality" of the offense is taken into account, with consideration given to the likelihood of a conviction and the severity of the punishment that would be handed down.
"The vast majority of UK service personnel deployed on military operations conduct themselves professionally and in accordance with the law," a spokeswoman from the Ministry of Defence said. "Where there is sufficient evidence, members of Her Majesty's Forces can be prosecuted."
Follow Tess Owen on Twitter: @misstessowen