Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are "not above the law" and will still be prosecuted for crimes five years after they take place, the Veterans Minister has insisted.
Writing in The Daily Telegraph Johnny Mercer has confirmed that the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill “still allows for allegations of wrongdoing more than 5 years old - including war crimes and torture - to be investigated and, where appropriate, prosecuted”.
“A decision on whether to prosecute for such crimes will continue to be for the independent prosecutor to make,” he said.
It comes after former officers wrote to Boris Johnson expressing concern about the legislation, which goes before Parliament for its second reading this Wednesday, warning that a five-year limit for prosecutions against soldiers and veterans might be received badly by the international community.
The Telegraph revealed that the letter had been “dismissed” by Robert Buckland, the Lord Chancellor, who has given the green light to the bill.
“The UK will never put the Armed Forces above the law,” Mr Mercer added. “On the contrary, we hold our people to the highest standards. Whenever the Armed Forces embark on operations outside the UK, our people and their chain of command are bound to abide by the criminal law of England and Wales, as well as international humanitarian law as set out in the Geneva Conventions.”
Mr Mercer cautioned that while “the overwhelming majority meet those expectations and serve with great distinction” there remains a “tiny minority who fall short”.
He said that those few “should expect the full force of the law”. “The uniform is no hiding place. Again this Bill won’t change that,” he said.
The legislation has been welcomed by Iraq war veterans after thousands of troops remained under investigation many years following the invasion of 2003.
All of those cases, excluding one, have since been dropped due to a lack of evidence while the lawyer, Phil Shiner, who brought the cases was struck off for dishonesty.
A justice source told this newspaper that both Mr Buckland and Ben Wallace, were “very in favour” of the bill, as they added the Government “can’t allow another Phil Shiner situation”.
Mr Mercer also addressed concerns raised by Labour that a six year limit on civil litigation claims would prevent troops suing the Ministry of Defence.
“The Bill will not prevent our troops bringing civil claims against the MOD,” he said. “Our analysis suggests 94 per cent of claims from service personnel and veterans are already brought within six years. Critically, for conditions like PTSD, this limit will start from the date of knowledge or diagnosis.”
Mr Mercer added that the purpose of the new bill would be “to break the vicious cycle of claims and repeated investigations driven by pernicious practitioners”.