in

A heartless coward who wrongly branded me a murderer

Lance-Corporal Brian Wood won the Military Cross for bravery in Iraq — only to be smeared as a war criminal nine years later. In the first part of our serialisation of his memoirs on Saturday, he told of his sense of betrayal. Here, in the final extract, he recalls his wrongful persecution by compensation-hungry British lawyers . . .

The moment of truth had arrived. As the public inquiry into alleged mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners by British soldiers began in London in 2013, I was repeatedly told I was not a defendant and this was not a trial.

But the wooden dock I was sitting in looked pretty much like a dock you’d see in a court of law. It was difficult not to think I was on trial here. I scanned the busy room and could see the easily recognisable figure of Phil Shiner, the human rights lawyer who had pressed so hard for this inquiry.

He represented six Iraqis who claimed British soldiers — me among them — attacked them at the Battle of Danny Boy in 2004 when they were nothing more than innocent farmers going about their lawful business, and then maltreated them when they were in custody.

Brian Wood, pictured returning home to his family after touring Afghanistan

Brian Wood, pictured returning home to his family after touring Afghanistan

They were also claiming 20 detainees taken back to the British base at Abu Naji for interrogation had been murdered. Shiner had a reputation as the gold standard of solicitors. Named human rights lawyer of the year in 2004 and the Law Society’s solicitor of the year in 2007, he had previously taken on the Government in mistreatment cases and won.

I had nothing to hide, but no wonder I was nervous.

The chairman, Sir Thayne Forbes, a former High Court judge, took his place. The only thing I knew about him was that he was the judge for the trial of the serial killer Dr Harold Shipman. It didn’t seem a positive omen.

‘Good morning, Colour Sergeant,’ he began — my rank now, though I was a Lance-Corporal when the events we were about to go over happened — and his polite demeanour put me more at ease.

Phil Shiner, human rights lawyer

Phil Shiner, human rights lawyer

But I felt under pressure — more in that inquiry room than when I was a junior commander out in the desert and a dozen or more insurgents armed with rocket-propelled grenades, Kalashnikovs and machine-guns were trying to kill me and my men.

He reassured me again that this was an inquiry and not a trial, but said my evidence would be given on oath — which seemed odd to me if it wasn’t a trial. Sat in that box with everyone looking up at me, it was almost impossible not to feel daunted as questioning began. Prompted by the lawyer for the inquiry — in effect, the prosecuting counsel — I began to give my account of what had happened at Danny Boy, a checkpoint in the Iraqi desert where my Warrior armoured troop carrier was ambushed back in 2004.

I’d been awarded the Military Cross for my part in that battle, and congratulated by the Queen.

Now I felt unnerved as the lawyer homed in on every small detail and then picked over it. Did I remember this? Where precisely was I when that happened? All of this had been covered in my written statement to the inquiry, but he asked me anyway. I could feel myself getting irritated.

But I knew I had to keep my composure. I’d give him my answer, he’d ask again and I’d give him the same answer again. It was like walking through a minefield.

In that inquiry room, I felt belittled and humiliated. I was having my experiences taken apart by someone who simply did not understand the confusion of a battlefield. For example, he kept on about whether, when I exited the Warrior troop carrier to engage the enemy, I’d gone left or right.

I couldn’t remember for sure, hardly surprising given the noise from guns and rockets, the speed of the action and that I was hyped up on adrenaline. He hadn’t a clue what it was like to be outnumbered and fighting for your life, yet here he was cross-questioning me on the minutest detail.

He produced a diagram I’d drawn of the incident and asked whether the irrigation ditches I’d shown in which the insurgents were hiding and shooting at us were U or V- shaped. He asked about timings, as though, in the middle of a gunfight, I was checking my watch every couple of minutes.

He wanted certainty about the number of enemy we faced when, at the time, it was impossible to say. His line of questioning was based on a misunderstanding of what a wartime situation is like. The more he asked, the more my ‘yes’ and ‘no’ responses were being mixed up with ‘I don’t know’ and ‘I can’t remember’.

Some of my answers contradicted statements of others involved in the action, and he seized on these, though it was perfectly natural for people in such intense situations to have different recollections.

Brian Wood collecting his MC at Buckingham Palace with his wife Lucy and parents

Brian Wood collecting his MC at Buckingham Palace with his wife Lucy and parents

He put to me an allegation from one of the Iraqi prisoners we took that he was kicked while blindfolded and handcuffed on the floor. A second detainee said that soldiers pushed his head hard onto the ground, stepped on him and dragged him by his ankles.

A third alleged he’d been kicked in the chest and struck on the head with a rifle.

I’d seen nothing of the sort, I said. It didn’t happen. On a purely practical level, there simply wasn’t time. And hitting someone with a rifle butt would only slow us down and put us in more danger.

He asked me about the handcuffing of the prisoners and whether I’d checked if they were too tight. ‘I can’t remember,’ I replied but inside my head I was thinking: Why are we even discussing this? I was a British soldier fighting for my country, protecting and serving this great nation and you are questioning me about how I applied a handcuff. You cuff them so they can’t pull a fast one. If it’s a bit tight, well, tough s***.

I recall glancing at the Ministry of Defence lawyer and my lawyer and wondering why they weren’t stepping in to tell the inquiry this was standard procedure. But they said nothing, leaving me on my own, defending Army policy.

You see, it’s not hard for civilians to sit in an air-conditioned inquiry room years after the event and make comments about plasticuffs and blindfolds and insinuate that our behaviour was brutal and barbaric. But the lack of understanding they showed of what it was like really being in that situation, and the context of how the Army carries out its instructions, that was truly shocking. War isn’t a contract negotiation. You’re not sat there calmly dotting every last ‘i’ and crossing every last ‘t’ until an agreement is reached. You’re under threat. You’re under fire. A bullet or a grenade or piece of shrapnel could kill or maim you at any moment.

Brian Wood pictured on patrol with 4 Platoon B Company in Helmand in 2012

Brian Wood pictured on patrol with 4 Platoon B Company in Helmand in 2012

You rely on gut and instinct to get you through, do what you have to do in order to survive. That’s the basics of what being a soldier is all about. That’s what it felt as though I was defending.

And that’s what I felt as though no one in that inquiry room properly understood.

My ordeal in that dock worsened as the next lawyer began his inquisition. Steven Powles was representing the six Iraqi complainants and went on the attack straightaway.

He wanted to know why, when the enemy had surrendered and we collected up their weapons, we had not made any effort to link any particular weapon with a particular detainee. It was totally missing the point. In the sort of situation we were in — having dashed across open ground through a hail of bullets and leaping into their trench — our sole priority was to get all their weapons, unload them and make them safe. You don’t start making a list of which rifle belongs to whom.

Then he wanted to know if I’d reinforced my commands to the prisoners ‘with any use of physical force or violence’.

I shook my head. Nor had I seen any of the other soldiers I was with hit or kick them.

I maintained eye contact with Powles during these exchanges, giving him a good straight eyeball as if to say no, I’m not afraid of you. His questioning seemed deliberately designed to try to trip me up, and I didn’t like it.

Brian Wood receiving the Military Cross. 'As the Queen pinned the medal on my chest, she said it was rare for her to hand out such awards. She told me to wear it with pride, and I promised I would'

Brian Wood receiving the Military Cross. ‘As the Queen pinned the medal on my chest, she said it was rare for her to hand out such awards. She told me to wear it with pride, and I promised I would’

He picked up on a discrepancy in the statement I’d given immediately after the battle when I said I only remembered killing two insurgents when in fact there were six dead. ‘Is the reality,’ he asked, ‘that you don’t want to tell this inquiry how the other four died?’

Wow, I thought. You’ve got some nerve, throwing such serious allegations about without any evidence to back them up.

His insinuations were implying that the statements I’d given were somehow cooked up, and my accounts of what happened weren’t to be believed.

‘No, not at all,’ I replied firmly.

All this left me frustrated, but angry, too. With complete impunity, he’d been allowed to stand up and make all kinds of accusations against me, call me a liar, a murderer and everything in between.

There in the dock, I felt pretty isolated and ridiculed as the rest of the room looked on and listened to me trying to defend myself.

At least, when they got their chance, my lawyer and the MoD lawyer redressed some of the balance and put what had happened at Danny Boy into a proper military context.

The MoD lawyer listed the weapons we’d seized that day — grenade launchers, belts of ammunition, five or six AK47 rifles and a machine-gun.

Brian Wood as a schoolboy

Brian Wood as a schoolboy

‘That’s correct,’ I said. This amount of weaponry demonstrated this had not been a chance encounter but that we’d been lured into a well-organised ambush.

When we took the insurgents prisoner, did they have any implements such as spades or sickles, which might suggest that they were farmers, as they claimed?

‘No,’ I replied, trying to keep a straight face at the ridiculousness of it all. ‘There were no picks or shovels, no tractors or anything like that, or cattle. It was just them and their weapons.’

And thankfully at that point my ordeal in the dock was over. The inquiry chairman thanked me and wished me well for the future and I was dismissed.

I was exhausted after the hours of questioning and being made to relive things I didn’t want to relive. I had spent difficult years coming to terms with the trauma of battle — the fear, killing, corpses — and now it had all been resurrected.

My lawyer reassured me that I had handled myself with great dignity and presented myself well. I was told I’d be notified where things would go next, and went back to my regiment in Germany.

It was now a waiting game — for all the evidence to be collected, the remaining witnesses to be interviewed and the inquiry to pass its judgment on what really happened that day in Iraq.

BY THE time the verdict came, I had left the Army and taken up a position with the security firm, Control Risks, providing close protection for U.S. oil executives, in Iraq of all places, back where it all began.

It was just over four months after my questioning when, on the last-but-one day of the hearing, there was a devastating shock — counsel for the Iraqi complainants withdrew the most serious accusation of all, that prisoners taken at Danny Boy had been murdered by British soldiers.

Phil Shiner’s firm issued a statement: ‘Following the conclusion of the military evidence and current state of disclosure by the MoD, it is our view there is insufficient material to establish that Iraqi civilians were unlawfully killed whilst in the custody of British troops at Camp Abu Naji.’

It was an extraordinary climbdown and undermined their whole case. If the most serious of the accusations against British forces weren’t true, what did that mean for the rest of them? Evidence from a number of Iraqi witnesses had apparently ‘been clarified’ and ‘significantly weakened’.

In plain English rather than legalese, it had been deemed unreliable. Which meant, in turn, that, as the MoD lawyers put it, the entire factual basis upon which the inquiry was predicated was untrue.

Nine months later, the final report of the inquiry was released, summing up 169 days of hearings, evidence from 55 Iraqi witnesses and 222 service personnel, and further written statements from another 328 witnesses. The report ran to more than 1,200 pages.

In it, the chairman, Sir Thayne Forbes, concluded that ‘the vast majority of the allegations made against the British military were wholly and entirely without merit or foundation’.

Without merit or foundation. Wow. I had to read that twice and pinch myself to make sure I’d read it right.

Forbes went on: ‘Very many of those baseless allegations were the product of deliberate and calculated lies on the part of those who made them, and who then gave evidence to this inquiry in order to support and perpetuate them.

‘Other false allegations were the result of inappropriate and reckless speculation on the part of witnesses.’

That, though, was just for starters. ‘The approach of the detainees and of a number of other Iraqi witnesses to the giving of their evidence was both unprincipled in the extreme and wholly without regard for the truth.’

As damning as Forbes was of the Iraqi witnesses, he was also full of praise for the military ones like me. ‘In general I found the military witnesses to be both truthful and reliable. They used their best endeavours to recall details of events that had occurred nearly a decade previously.

‘The evidence clearly showed that the British soldiers responded to this deadly ambush with exemplary courage, resolution and professionalism.

‘The work of this inquiry has established beyond doubt that all the most serious allegations made against the British soldiers involved in the Battle of Danny Boy and its aftermath, and which have been hanging over these soldiers for the last ten years [are] wholly without foundation and entirely the product of deliberate lies, reckless speculation and ingrained hostility.’

I felt a weight lifting off my shoulders. For the inquiry to come up with these conclusions, backing up everything I’d said, was a huge release.

The inquiry did uphold some of the more minor claims of mistreatment. It suggested, for example, that the detainees should have been given proper food and drink when they were first detained.

That was a little dig at me for refusing to give a prisoner water when returning to base in the back of the Warrior, on the grounds (as I’d told the inquiry) that we had a limited amount left and I was keeping it back in case my men needed it.

Looking back, I can see this was wrong and I should have let him have a drink. There were also criticisms about the tightness of the handcuffs, but these were minor compared to the larger accusations of mistreatment and torture.

The inquiry had cost £31 million, and I felt bad, in a strange way, that so much money out of the public purse had been spent on it. But above all, I felt relief that the truth was out there and the soap opera of emotions I’d been through over those years was finally coming to an end.

As I told the Daily Mail in an interview at the time: ‘We have been dragged through years of hell and that, in my view, is a betrayal of our service. We did what we had to do as soldiers and we did the right thing.’

In the House of Commons, the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, was sharply critical of both the Iraqi witnesses and their legal team: ‘The Iraqi detainees, their accomplices and their lawyers must bear the brunt of the criticism for the protracted nature of this inquiry.’

He challenged Phil Shiner to issue an unequivocal apology to the soldiers whose reputations he attempted to traduce — which he has never done.

Fallon added: ‘The reputation of our Armed Forces will survive the baseless slurs of those who seek to undermine those on whom we all depend.’

This, for me, was real lump-in-the-throat stuff. After sitting in that inquiry room, feeling isolated and hung out to dry by the MoD, it was good to finally hear them coming down on our side.

And not only defending us, but acknowledging the bravery that we’d shown in that battle.

The spotlight now shifted to Shiner. The Government produced evidence that his firm of solicitors had had misgivings over the credibility of its clients, but left it a full 12 months before withdrawing the allegations of unlawful killing at the very end of the inquiry.

It also claimed they had used a ‘fixer’ or agent in Iraq, who had made what it described as ‘unsolicited approaches’ to potential victims.

The result of this deeply unethical process had been an explosion in the number of cases Shiner’s firm had filed against British forces — more than 1,000 judicial review claims in total.

The Government pushed for Shiner to be struck off as a solicitor. In 2016, his firm closed, announcing it would not act for 187 Iraqi claimants it was representing and would not bring forward a further 1,000 cases that it had been intending to lodge.

Charged by the Solicitors’ Regulation Authority, he admitted nine counts of acting without integrity and one of acting recklessly.

In a letter to the disciplinary tribunal, he admitted paying a fixer more than £25,000 in referral fees to try to find clients, and that he had doctored evidence in an attempt to cover his tracks.

He also admitted to paying a witness to change their evidence in the Danny Boy inquiry.

He was struck off as a solicitor, and I was pleased. He appeared to have got into his head the idea that the British Army were b******s to a man and that he was going to bring them down.

He’d dragged people like me through years of hell. Now he’d never be able to do that again.He never apologised. Even if he did now, I think it’s too late. There was a time and a place to do so, and he decided not to. I think he’s heartless and a coward for not having done so.

The contrast with the bravery shown by the troops at Danny Boy couldn’t be sharper.

My firm belief remains that the public inquiry should never have happened in the first place. Those initial accusations should have been thoroughly investigated behind closed doors, to ascertain that there wasn’t a case to be brought.

One of the detainees claimed he had been out grazing cows on the battlefield when the action took place. Another said he’d been there buying 40 litres of yoghurt for a wedding.

It was ridiculous. Someone should have looked at this stuff at the start and said: ‘There’s nothing to this.’

Having the accusations out there, and given credence by the public inquiry, tarnished our names, tarnished the regiment, tarnished our achievements. Mud sticks.

My life has moved on. I have a good job in Civvy Street and spend as much time as I can with my family.

But the mere fact that the Government allowed that inquiry to happen at all still makes me feel angry. It was a complete betrayal.

  • Adapted from Double Crossed by Brian Wood, published by Virgin Books on February 21 at £20. © Brian Wood 2019. To order a copy for £16 (offer valid until February 25, 2019; P&P free), visit mailshop. co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640.

Source

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

California governor to draw down guard troops at border

World’s biggest superyacht in the design stage