Battle for inquiry into Army ‘massacre’ blocked

High Court judges have blocked attempts to force a public inquiry into the killing of 24 Malaysian rubber plantation workers by British troops more than 60 years ago.

Victims’ relatives described the shootings at Batang Kali, Malaya, in December 1948 as a “massacre” and judges said allegations against members of the Scots Guards were “as serious as it is possible to make”.

But Sir John Thomas – president of the Queen’s Bench Division of the High Court, who sat with Mr Justice Treacy – said yesterday it would be “very difficult at this point in time” to establish whether the shootings were “deliberate executions”.

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Judges said the cost of an inquiry would be “materially greater” than £1m and said it was “very questionable” whether “much can be learnt”.

British soldiers were conducting operations against communist insurgents during the Malayan Emergency when the plantation workers were killed, judges heard.

“Bandit activity” had been reported and the army patrolled with local police. It was during one of these patrols that 24 civilians were killed at Batang Kali – a village on a rubber plantation inhabited by unarmed families.

The Scots Guards patrol commanded by 22-year-old Lance Sergeant Charles Douglas, had pursued and lost two uniformed armed insurgents on their way to the village. Inhabitants were subsequently separated into two groups – men, and women and children – and “detained in custody”. They were then interrogated, with the judges noting “there were simulated executions to frighten them, causing trauma”.

“The police officers secured information from one of the males, Cheung Hung, about armed insurgents who occasionally visited the village to obtain food supplies. This information was passed to the patrol.”

Judges said the next day women and children, plus one “traumatised man”, were taken away – and 23 men were held in a hut.

“The hut with 23 men was unlocked. Within minutes all of the 23 men were dead as a result of being shot by the patrol,” added judges. “The inhabitants’ huts were then burned down and the patrol returned to its base.”

On December 13 Sgt Douglas was interviewed by a journalist – in the presence of a senior officer – and said “all those shot” had been “trying to escape”.

Relatives had argued said there was enough evidence to justify an official investigation and asked judges to overturn a Government decision not to hold an inquiry.

The judges analysed three investigations into the killings – in the late 1940s, the early 1970s and the mid-1990s.

Sir John Thomas said the allegation of a cover-up was “one which can properly be made on the evidence”. He said it was “difficult to escape the conclusion” that between 1993 and 1996 departments of John Major’s Conservative government decided to “progress any inquiries with as much delay as possible”.

Foreign Secretary William Hague and Defence Secretary Philip Hammond had opposed the relatives’ application, arguing the decision not to hold an inquiry was lawful. Sir John said decisions taken by Mr Hague and Mr Hammond were “not unreasonable”.

Solicitor John Halford, who represents victims’ families, said after the hearing that relatives would appeal.