Iraqi Family Turns to Australian Court over Gunshot Wounds

February 29, 2008

An Iraqi family is seeking compensation in court from Australia’s government for gunshot wounds sustained when Australian troops opened fire at a Baghdad checkpoint, a lawyer said.

The al-Saadi family of five are living in the eastern Australian city of Brisbane on a special visa that enables the mother, Lamyaa, and her 11-year-old son Ahmed to get long-term hospital treatment for gunshot and shrapnel wounds they suffered in 2005, lawyer Kerrie Jackson said.

Previously, Australian officials in Iraq have directly compensated some families of civilians killed or injured there. But Jackson said the lawsuit lodged in the Supreme Court of Queensland is the first claim in an Australian court against the government over the actions of Australian soldiers in Iraq.

Jackson said her firm, Maurice Blackburn, took on the case and had yet to calculate damages. A colleague, Darryl Rangiah, successfully argued in court for the action to be allowed to proceed.

A trial could be many months away, however, Jackson said.

Neil James, executive director of the Australian Defense Association think tank, predicted the suit would fail. It could set a dangerous precedent if it succeeded, he said.

“Iraq is a very complex environment. You can’t have an Australian court using peacetime legal standards years later to second-guess snap tactical decisions made by troops on the ground,” James said.

“It contravenes a fairly ancient British common law principle that the warlike actions of the military in war aren’t actionable in a civil court,” he added.

The al-Saadi family were returning to their Baghdad home after visiting relatives on Feb. 26, 2005, when their car was stopped by four Australian soldiers, their lawsuit claims.

The family alleges that soldiers fired four shots into the car without warning.

However, the Australian military said at the time that the car’s driver ignored repeated requests to stop.

Lamyaa al-Saadi lost sight in her left eye and lost hearing in her left ear. Ahmed al-Saadi, then age 8, was blinded in one eye by shrapnel.

The entire family has suffered serious psychological trauma, the lawsuit claims.

On April 1, 2005, the family says a senior military officer visited their home and delivered two envelopes. One envelope had the mother’s name on it and contained $4,700. The second carried the injured boy’s name and contained $3,000.

Family members were given 12-month medical visas to move to Australia in September last year.

The Defense Department confirmed in a statement that cash payments were made to two members of the al-Saadi family.

“The payments are not an admission of wrongdoing or legal liability,” the statement said. It said soldiers who dealt with the family “acted appropriately and within their rules of engagement.”

The department had also paid for the family’s travel to Australia, medical treatment, accommodation and schooling, as well as an allowance to cover living expenses, the statement said.

“Defense has provided this support as a humanitarian gesture,” the statement said, adding that it did not imply wrongdoing.

Australia sent 2,000 troops to back U.S. and British forces in the Iraq invasion in 2003. Australia now has 1,540 army, air force and naval personnel in the region, but the new government plans to withdraw 550 combat troops by mid year.

The Australian government said last year it had made “act of grace” compensation payments totaling $203,702 to eight families of civilians killed or injured in Iraq. It did not name the individuals or say whether the al-Saadis were among them. No circumstances were detailed.

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