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Britain unveils law to protect soldiers from prosecutions

1 min 53Approximate reading time

The British government on Tuesday unveiled plans to provide "stronger legal protections" for military personnel and veterans who could face war crimes allegations but denied they amounted to an amnesty.

The prosecution of British soldiers for historic alleged crimes in Northern Ireland, and more recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, has been a controversial issue that has dogged the military and government for years.

The draft legislation proposes measures to "reduce uncertainty arising from historical allegations and create a better legal framework to deal with claims from future overseas conflicts," according to the defence ministry.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said the new law would deliver on the Conservative government's 2019 election promise to protect service personnel and veterans from "vexatious claims and endless investigations".

"Our armed forces risk their lives to protect us and it is vital we continue to progress this legislation, providing certainty for the troops," he added, as lawmakers prepare to debate the bill Wednesday.

Ahead of his emphatic election victory last December, Prime Minister Boris Johnson vowed to end moves to bring charges against army veterans who had served in Northern Ireland during the so-called Troubles.

The government said Tuesday it would introduce separate legislation to address the historic and sensitive situation in the British province.

- 'No case to answer' -

The Overseas Operations Bill will introduce a statutory presumption against prosecuting current or former soldiers for alleged offences committed on overseas operations more than five years ago.

It raises the threshold prosecutors will use in deciding to pursue a case after five years to "exceptional", and require them to weigh the public interest and get consent from the attorney general before prosecuting.

The bill will restrict the discretion of courts to extend time limits for bringing civil claims for personal injuries, deaths and human rights act violations to a maximum of six years.

It also obliges future governments to consider overriding the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) in relation to significant overseas operations.

However, the government said such operations will continue to be governed by other international humanitarian law.

"This legislation is not about providing an amnesty or putting troops above the law but protecting them from lawyers intent on rewriting history to line their own pockets," junior defence minister Johnny Mercer said.

The defence ministry said around 70 percent of allegations received by the independent Iraq Historic Allegations Team were dismissed because "there was no case to answer".

But the UK military has been accused of covering up credible evidence of war crimes by soldiers against civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to leaks last year from two government-ordered inquiries.

In June, an independent British investigator looking into the Iraqi allegations said that all but one of thousands of complaints -- which ranged from rape and torture to mock executions and other atrocities -- had been dropped.

That followed a 2017 UK tribunal ruling that ex-lawyer Phil Shiner, who investigated and chronicled hundreds of the accounts of such crimes, was guilty of misconduct and dishonesty.

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