A panel of three judges criticised “disturbing failures” in how the MoD handled applications to withhold evidence, saying that all future requests should treated by the courts “with very considerable caution”.
The Government earlier this week ordered a new inquiry into the deaths of 20 Iraqis following a gun battle near the town of Majar-al-Kabir in 2004. Relatives of the victims claim they were murdered and mutilated at Camp Abu Naji, a British base.
Yesterday Lord Justice Scott Baker and two other judges condemned “truly alarming” errors made by the MoD in its efforts to prevent documents becoming public during an earlier investigation.
A public interest immunity (PII) certificate presented to the courts – in which the MoD claimed that permissible interrogation limits issued to soldiers should be kept secret to protect national security – was factually incorrect because the information was already in the public domain, the judges said.
The MoD compounded its error by failing to inform the courts when the inaccuracy was realised, they added.
“The court was misled into making a number of rulings on a false basis, all of which were wrong and should never have been made,” Lord Justice Scott Baker said.
“The steps that are currently being taken by the MoD, including the prospective detailed review of its PII process in this case, must ensure that false assertions are never again made in a ministerial certificate and schedule.”
An MoD spokesman said the errors were a matter of “deep regret”. He said: “There was absolutely no intention of misleading the Court. There will be a thorough review of what went wrong and measures will be introduced urgently to ensure that this cannot happen again.”
The MoD emphatically denies the original allegations and says that the 20 people who died were killed “on the battlefield”.
Announcing the new inquiry on Monday, Bob Ainsworth, the Defence Secretary, said that there was no evidence of torture or mutilation.
“However, these are serious allegations and we regret that we have failed to provide the court with timely and sufficient disclosure of information to enable them to determine the facts,” he said.
“Given these failings of disclosure, we have suggested to the court that a fresh investigation be undertaken into allegations of the murder of Iraqi detainees.”