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MPs have voted for a new law that 'decriminalises torture by British troops and is assault on human rights', it has been claimed.
The Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill cleared the Commons on Tuesday after MPs gave it a third reading by 345 votes to 260, majority 85.
But some politicians and senior military figures have said the legislation will create a presumption against the prosecution of torture and other serious crimes, except rape and sexual violence.
Scottish Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael wrote in PoliticsHome that the government was ‘seeking to effectively decriminalise torture’ by introducing the new bill.
Field Marshal Lord Guthrie added the legislation “provides room for a de facto decriminalisation of torture”.
Tory MP David Davis and the SNP both failed in their bids to exclude torture from the remit of the bill.
The government believes the new legislation will ensure service personnel will be protected from “vexatious claims and endless investigations”.
Defence minister Johnny Mercer said the bill “does not decriminalise torture”.
He argued: “The bill does not decriminalise torture or war crimes and it will not encourage or allow our service personnel to act with impunity.
“We will continue to take other offences such as war crimes and torture extremely seriously. The severity and the circumstances in which it was committed will always be factored in the prosecutor’s considerations.”
Speaking at third reading, defence secretary Ben Wallace added: “It (the bill) does not undermine the UK’s adherence to the UN Convention against Torture, commitment to international law or willingness to investigate and prosecute any alleged criminal offences.”
The legislation seeks to limit false and historical allegations arising from overseas operations by introducing a statutory presumption against prosecution, making it exceptional for personnel to be prosecuted five years or more after an incident.
To override the presumption, the consent of the attorney general will be required, and the prosecutor must weigh up the “adverse impact of overseas operations on service personnel” and, where there has been no compelling new evidence, the public interest in cases coming to a “timely conclusion”.
Speaking during the leglisation’s report stage, Luton North Labour MP Sarah Owen said: “How can this government call out other states for their use of torture and human rights abuses when they seek to pass legislation which legitimises the very same?”
Shadow defence secretary John Healey added the UK can do “so much better” than the legislation as it currently stands.
The Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner has written a letter to MPs urging them to reject provisions in the bill that would lead to human rights violations.
The bill will undergo further scrutiny at a later date.
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