British soldiers accused of abuses against Iraqi civilians could face a military trial in Iraq in front of the families of their alleged victims, a senior Ministry of Defence (MOD) official said today.
The MOD’s director-general of operational policy, Martin Howard, said that in such cases the court martial should ideally be held close to the scene of the alleged crime.
Giving evidence to the Commons Defence Committee, he said that in principle the public would have the right to attend the hearings, although security in Iraq would have to be tighter than if they were held in the UK.
He said that while there was no fixed policy on where the hearings should be held, in practice the locations were likely to vary between Iraq and the UK.
Mr Howard also disclosed that the number of cases under investigation by the Special Investigation Branch of the Royal Military Police had risen from the 75 disclosed last month by Armed Forces Minister Adam Ingram to 79.
“The court martial would ideally be held close to the scene of the crime,” he said.
“That is obviously much easier, but it would depend on whether you have the right sort of legal representation and have got qualified people on the spot. In the case of Iraq, you probably have got the right people.
“In general, courts martial have the same sort of status as a crown court so, as I understand it, members of the public can attend. There may be stricter security in Iraq but, in principle, members of the public can attend.”
The Deputy Chief of Defence Staff (Operations), Major General Nick Houghton, warned that there would be practical difficulties in holding courts martial in Iraq.
But he said that even if the main trial was held in the UK, some hearings could still take place in Iraq.
“I think the practicalities of arranging a court martial would militate for doing it back in the UK if that was possible,” he said.
“I would be quite possible to hold the court martial back in the UK but during proceedings it might be required for the presiding judge and the court martial to actually visit the scene.”