A former British army officer is to launch fresh legal action against the Ministry of Defence over her alleged treatment at the hands of the Iraq Historic Allegations Team (Ihat).
Rachel Webster, who rose to the rank of captain and completed four tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, called on the prime minister, Theresa May, to put an end to Ihat and its “bloated, discredited and damaging witch-hunt” as she and her legal team revealed damages claims would be lodged at the high court against the MoD.
Ihat has been investigating alleged abuses by UK military personnel against Iraqi civilians dating back more than a decade.
Webster’s comments coincided with a pledge from the defence secretary, Sir Michael Fallon, who said investigations into alleged abuses by the British military in Afghanistan and Northern Ireland would not be allowed to develop into a flood of legal claims on the scale of Iraq.
Webster, who has already received a payout from the MoD in relation to her contact with Ihat investigators, claims to have been roughly treated and humiliated when arrested and physically restrained in her own home in a dawn raid in 2014.
In a statement, her barrister, David Taylor, said on her behalf that Ihat was an “unstoppable double-jeopardy juggernaut running dangerously out of control”.
“Rachel calls for an end to this self-inflicted military fiasco and that an inquiry be ordered to see what went so badly wrong,” the statement said.
“The prime minister, Theresa May, said recently that the bravest of the brave would be protected. Rachel Webster served her country well for 24 years.
“So she calls upon the prime minister, Theresa May, an honourable woman, who like Rachel has spent her whole life defending British values and protecting British lives, to shut down Ihat now and put an end to this bloated, discredited and damaging witch-hunt.”
Soon after the statement was read on the steps of the Royal Courts of Justice, Webster, who was wearing her military service medals, broke down in tears.
Webster, who was awarded a commander’s commendation for “exceptionally valuable service” in Kosovo, was initially contacted by the inquiry team in October 2013 asking her to provide a witness statement about the activities of a former colleague, but she declined.
Fallon was giving evidence to a Commons defence sub-committee looking into the handling of accusations against members of the British armed forces, in particular the work of Ihat, set up by Labour in 2010.
The chairman of the committee, the Conservative MP Johnny Mercer, a former British army officer, expressed frustration that the number of cases in relation to Iraq had got out of control and that past and present members of the armed services been put under unnecessary pressure.
Ihat investigators have faced relentless criticism from parts of the media, which have portrayed the troops as innocent victims of lawyer-driven actions. But defenders of Ihat recall the notorious , an Iraqi who died in British detention, and note that the MoD has paid out £22m in compensation to victims of alleged abuse in Iraq.
Ihat has looked at 1,490 cases of alleged abuse, many of them brought by , which has since closed down.
Fallon told the committee the MoD had not anticipated the “industrial scale” of alleged cases in Iraq. Asked by MPs on the defence sub-committee if he could ensure that there would not be a repeat in relation to Afghanistan and Northern Ireland, he said he would work to ensure there would not be and that legislation was planned that would include time limits on cases.
Asked about the Afghanistan investigation, Operation Northmoor, Fallon said: “I am not going to let it descend into a witch-hunt.” And he promised to work alongside the Northern Ireland secretary over the allegations there to ensure they were kept in proportion. “We are not going to allow Northern Ireland to become another Ihat,” Fallon said.
The military police are investigating allegations by 150 Afghan detainees of mistreatment. The Police Service of Northern Ireland’s legacy investigation branch is looking at 302 deaths during the Troubles that involved the military.