British troops have been placed under criminal investigation over the detention more than 13 years ago of Iraqis suspected of murdering two Army soldiers
15 OCTOBER 2016 • 10:00PM
It was one of the most notorious and brutal slayings of the Iraq war, photographed and documented by a mob who “executed” two British soldiers.
Staff Sergeant Simon Cullingworth, 36, and Sapper Luke Allsopp, 24, were shot in an ambush, the first ground troops to be killed in the early days of the Iraq war.
The men, both serving with 33 Engineer Regiment on bomb disposal duties, were in a Land Rover on patrol in Al Zubayr, not far from Basra in southern Iraq, on March 23, 2003 when they were set upon.
Their vehicle was hit by a hail of bullets and a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) and forced to a stop.
Sgt Cullingworth, a married father of two, could be heard shouting “keep up, keep up” over the Army radio to the vehicle travelling behind, but in the chaos of the ambush, their Land Rover became separated from the convoy.
Out of the surrounding streets, Iraqi militia loyal to Saddam Hussein charged toward the pair, firing heavily.
Lance Corporal Marcus Clarke, who was driving another Land Rover behind and was hit in the shoulder, told an inquest three years later: “We drove into smoke and I was then facing the front of their Land Rover. They were going up the road backwards, off to the right.
“I thought I was going to hit them and swerved around. We continued and got 15 metres past the first vehicle when we were also hit by RPGs, which spun us round and we crashed.”
As their attackers, clad in black and firing rifles, ran at them, they took cover in a compound.
They could hear Sgt Cullingworth calling two to three minutes after the ambush started, saying: “Clarkie, come back and get me.”
L/Cpl Philip Law, who had been in the vehicle behind, said: “We couldn’t get to them because there was so much fire.”
Sgt Cullingworth, from Essex, and Sapper Allsopp, from north-east London, never stood a chance.
Isolated from their comrades, the two soldiers were dragged from their Land Rover and taken to a local, temporary headquarters of the ruling Ba’ath party, wounded but not fatally. They needn’t have died.
At that point the men should have been held as prisoners of war and, under the provisions of the Geneva Convention, treated for their injuries.
Pictures shown to the coroner’s court in 2006 showed the men bleeding heavily without any obvious medical help.
A decision had been made to transport them to a nearby compound under the control of Iraqi intelligence.
“Staff Sgt Cullingworth administered morphine to Sapper Allsopp at some point,” the coroner said.
Inside the compound it must have been terrifying. As they lay dying, a mob gathered to watch.
Photographs were taken by some in the crowd and those horrifying images subsequently shown on al-Jazeera TV. Nobody in the crowd made any attempt to help the dying men.
The soldiers died from wounds fired from at least two rifles and one pistol. By then they had been stripped of their helmets and flak jackets.
Sapper Allsopp was filmed collapsed on the ground. Forensic experts who examined the footage believed that at that stage he was still alive. He would lie there for almost four hours.
He had been shot at least 10 times, in the chest, arm and legs. One gunshot wound to the heart would have “rendered him unconscious” but it was not clear when that was fired.
Sgt Cullingworth had been shot five times, with wounds to his chest and abdomen. The film, shown on television, caused outrage.
Tony Blair described their deaths as executions, saying they were acts “of cruelty beyond all human comprehension”. George W Bush, at a joint press conference at Camp David, said: “They were murdered, unarmed soldiers executed. That’s a war crime.”
After their capture, the British military frantically searched for them. Colonel William Hay would tell the inquest how he and his men had fought a “pitched battle” in the hunt for the pair.
But they themselves had been lucky to escape with their lives, having turned a wrong corner and come under fire before fleeing for safety, but without their comrades.
Al Zubayr was a notorious, dangerous town and there were questions about why the men had been patrolling there. Only the day before the ambush, Terry Lloyd, the veteran ITV News correspondent, had been killed in the same area.
It would be a month before the soldiers’ bodies were discovered. They were buried in a shallow, unmarked grave not far from where they had been murdered, in the grounds of a government building in Al Zubayr.
The Army began an 18-month investigation into their deaths, trying to piece together who had ordered the ambush and who had sanctioned their executions.
The investigation was led by Major Kay Roberts, who told the inquest her team had interviewed “scores” of Iraqi witnesses.
A military adviser to the Ba’ath party said the men had been taken by military intelligence and murdered.
The inquest was told that the “normal outcome” of being held by Iraqi military intelligence was death. The coroner concluded at the end of the inquest: “It would seem from the evidence the men were murdered by Iraqi intelligence. They were shot and killed in that compound.”
The Royal Military Police’s Special Investigation Branch had spent 18 months on their inquiries and concluded by October 2004 that two men, Faisal Al-Saadoon and Khalaf Mufdhi, were implicated in the soldiers’ murders.
The Royal Military Police, according to legal documents lodged in 2010, found evidence the two suspects “were part of a group who slapped and rifle-butted the soldiers, at a time when they were prisoners of war; entered into an agreement to kill them; and were among those seen to have shot them”.
Mufdhi was described as the local head of the Ba’ath party, while Al-Saadoon was a senior branch member reporting to Mufdhi.
Al-Saadoon was arrested on April 30, 2003, 20 days after the bodies were found; Mufdhi was detained in November 2003.
But the attempt to halt the transfer of the prime suspects into the hands of the Iraqi authorities for a war crimes trial hit the legal buffers.
A British law firm, Public Interest Lawyers (PIL), argued the suspects could not be transferred to the Iraqi authorities because there they would face the death penalty if convicted, in contravention of European human rights laws.
But they also argued their continued detention without trial breached their human rights.
The Iraqi suspects were then granted legal aid to argue their release through the British courts.
The Court of Appeal ruled Al-Saadoon and Mudfhi should be handed over to the Iraqi authorities.
After they were transferred, PIL took the case to the European Court of Human Rights and in 2010 won.
The men were awarded €40,000 (£36,000) in costs, and a reported further £75,000 each in damages, on the grounds of the “mental suffering caused by the fear of execution amounting to inhuman treatment”.
PIL lodged a criminal complaint with the Iraq Historic Allegations Team. It is now possible that after the terrible murders of Sgt Cullingworth and Sapper Allsopp, the only people convicted are fellow British troops, accused of mistreating the men once suspected of the killings.
British troops have been placed under criminal investigation over the detention more than 13 years ago of Iraqis suspected of murdering two Army soldiers, The Telegraph can disclose.
The servicemen have been investigated in secret for more than two years over the alleged ill treatment of the two Iraqis accused of carrying out one of the bloodiest and most notorious attacks on British troops during the conflict.
The soldiers face prosecution and, if found guilty, possible jail terms.
Military chiefs have branded the criminal inquiry into the troops an outrage and a betrayal of the Armed Forces.
They expressed astonishment that themurders of two British soldiers could lead to the convictions of troops who detained the suspects – rather than the suspects themselves.
Staff Sergeant Simon Cullingworth, 36, and Sapper Luke Allsopp, 24, were dragged from their Land Rover in an ambush in March 2003 in Al Zubayr in southern Iraq, taken to a compound and executed in front of a mob. Footage of the soldiers surrounded by the crowd was shown on television.
A Royal Military Police investigation concluded two Iraqis – Faisal al-Saadoon and Khalaf Mufdhi – were involved in ordering and carrying out the murders. The men were handed over to the Iraqi authorities and charged with war crimes, although those charges were later dropped due to insufficient evidence. The Ministry of Defence said at the time it did not mean the Iraqis had been found innocent.
But in a new twist, The Telegraph can disclose the two men have lodged separate criminal complaints with the Iraq Historic Allegations Team (Ihat), the controversial unit set up by the UK Government to examine alleged abuses committed by British troops.
The Iraqi suspects, having been granted taxpayer-funded legal aid, have accused British troops of mistreating them during their detention. Ihat confirmed it is investigating their complaint.
The men, who insist they were innocent teachers, have already successfully sued the Ministry of Defence for breaching their human rights.
Al-Saadoon and Mufdhi were awarded £35,000 in legal costs by the European Court of Human Rights, amid reports of a further £75,000 each in damages, for “their mental suffering” over the threat of facing the death penalty in Iraq.
The case has sparked renewed calls for an end to almost 1,500 criminal inquiries into British troops being conducted by Ihat.
Lord Dannatt, the former head of the Army, said: “This case must be dropped. It is outrageous that the allegations are still being looked at 13 years later. An investigation of this nature into ill treatment is far too late after the events.”
Colonel Tim Collins, who is retired, and who led troops in Iraq, said: “This is indicative of the whole mess we have got ourselves into. This is not now, and never has been, about justice. This is about money. It is a national embarrassment. This is a disgrace.”
Johnny Mercer, a Conservative MP chairing an inquiry into Ihat’s workings, said: “This case yet again highlights our betrayal of British soldiers.”
Mr Mercer, a former Army captain, added: “We have shifted from concluding these individuals were involved in the murder of two of our servicemen to investigating their handling with the potential of bringing criminal charges against war veterans. It is extraordinary and astonishing how we have lurched from one to the other.”
The row is the latest to engulf Ihat over concerns war veterans are being hounded years after the Iraq war and follows a series of revelations in The Telegraph.
This newspaper disclosed details of a major, awarded two medals for bravery, who is now facing prosecution for manslaughter over the death of a 19-year-old Iraqi who drowned in a canal in Basra in 2003.
The complaint against the British troops over the alleged ill treatment of the murder suspects was taken to Ihat more than two years ago by a British law firm that has been paid millions of pounds in legal aid to bring abuse allegations against the military.
The law firm – Public Interest Lawyers (PIL) – has been given public funds to bring legal actions on behalf of al-Saadoon and Mufdhi.
PIL and its founder Phil Shiner are themselves currently under investigation by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal over alleged irregularities over its work in Iraq. The firm closed down in the summer after being stripped of its legal aid contract as a result of those concerns.
An Ihat spokeswoman confirmed that a criminal investigation was ongoing into the “ill treatment” of al-Saadoon and Mufdhi.
The spokeswoman said: “The case was brought to our attention by Public Interest Lawyers. It concerns their alleged ill treatment during detention.”
Ihat declined to say how many British troops were under investigation.
Al-Saadoon, now aged 64, and Mufdhi, 66, were arrested shortly after the killings of Sapper Allsopp and Sgt Cullingworth and suspected of being local officials with the former ruling Ba’ath party.
They were arrested by British troops after intelligence suggested they were co-ordinating attacks in the area.
Senior defence sources said that following their arrests, “more intelligence surfaced” that they were linked to the deaths of Sgt Cullingworth and Sapper Allsopp.
The Royal Military Police concluded in October 2004 that the two men had been involved in the murders.
The Basra Criminal Court decided the allegations constituted war crimes and that they should be tried in an Iraqi court.
But the Iraqis’ lawyers had argued that the men were innocent and that far from being Iraqi insurgent leaders, they were middle-aged teachers who had been falsely accused of murder.
They launched a legal action arguing their detention in British custody in Basra without trial was a breach of their human rights under both the European human rights convention and the Human Rights Act 1998.
Mr Shiner, their lawyer, further argued that to hand them over to the Iraqi courts to stand trial also breached their human rights since they faced the possible death penalty if found guilty of war crimes.
The British courts ruled after five years’ in detention that the men could be handed over to face trial in Iraq. In 2009, al-Saadoon and Mufdhi were told the charges against them had been dropped following a hearing at a criminal court in Baghdad.
At the time of the decision, the MoD said in a statement: “It is worth noting that Mr Al Saadoon and Mr Mufdhi have not been found innocent of any involvement in the murders of two British servicemen.”
Tags: 33 Engineer Regiment, Al Saadoon, Al Zubayr, British Army, British soldiers, death penalty, European Court of Human Rights, European Human Rights Convention, European human rights laws, Human Rights Act 1998, Iraq, Luke Allsopp, mental suffering caused by the fear of execution amounting to inhuman treatment, Mr Mufdhi, Phil Shiner, PIL, Public-interest lawyers, Royal Military Police, Simon Cullingworth, war crimes