LONDON — Three British soldiers have been referred to a senior military prosecutor over allegations that they abused Iraqis in the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion, the Ministry of Defense said Tuesday.
If the allegations are substantiated, the soldiers could eventually be charged with war crimes.
The government says the referral was made last month but refused to give any details about the soldiers, the nature of the alleged abuse, or when or exactly where in Iraq it is alleged to have occurred. The acknowledgment only came after lawyers acting for the Ministry of Defense announced the development to Britain's High Court, where the government is being sued over the alleged abuse.
The Ministry of Defense stressed that the allegations are just that, and one of the lawyers, James Eadie, told the court that war crimes charges were among a range of possibilities, if the claims were backed by solid evidence.
"It is a very big if," he said.
Still, the development is potentially explosive. The British army has only conducted a war crimes trial once before, in 2006, when Cpl. Donald Payne pleaded guilty to treating Iraqi detainees inhumanely at a court-martial. Six other British soldiers were acquitted.
The landmark trial – which included descriptions of savage beatings administered at British detention facilities where temperatures rose to nearly 140 degrees Fahrenheit (60 degrees Celsius) – tarnished the reputation of the country's armed forces.
But a prominent human rights law firm, Public Interest Lawyers, has long alleged that there were many more such cases, and is fighting to force the government to hold a wide-ranging public inquiry into how detainees were treated throughout British-occupied Iraq.
The group argues that an open investigation is the only way of delivering justice to the victims of British mistreatment, while the military says that such an inquiry would be costly and duplicate the work of its own investigative team.
Phil Shiner of Public Interest Lawyers called Tuesday's announcement a "breakthrough" that could help lay bare the details of Britain's interrogation policy, which he has equated to Abu Ghraib, the notorious American prison site where Iraqi detainees were beaten and sexually humiliated.
"There are remarkable similarities between everything that we know that the Americans did in Abu Ghraib and what we know from the evidence in this court," he said.
Some 46,000 British troops participated in the invasion of Iraq in 2003, taking responsibility for the country's south. Britain withdrew from Iraq in mid-2009.