Bombardier Khan's private battle

After suffering years of racist abuse, former British soldier Nasar Khan is making legal history by taking the MoD to a civilian tribunal
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Nasar Khan remembers it well. His induction ceremony should have been one of the proudest moments of his life. Instead it was humiliating. As the new recruit swore his allegiance to the Crown, a lieutenant-colonel handed him the Queen's Shilling - the traditional day's pay given to soldiers when they pledge themselves to the defence of the realm. He had the following advice for the new Pakistani Muslim recruit: "Buy yourself a cup of tea and a chapati."

Nasar Khan remembers it well. His induction ceremony should have been one of the proudest moments of his life. Instead it was humiliating. As the new recruit swore his allegiance to the Crown, a lieutenant-colonel handed him the Queen's Shilling - the traditional day's pay given to soldiers when they pledge themselves to the defence of the realm. He had the following advice for the new Pakistani Muslim recruit: "Buy yourself a cup of tea and a chapati."

"I should have thrown it back in his face," says Nasar. This week, the ex-soldier makes history when he becomes the first person to take a racial discrimination grievance against the MoD before a civilian tribunal. Army lawyers will be watching keenly as the case will expose the armed forces to public scrutiny through the courts.

In an institution which celebrates uniformity, Nasar's creed and colour marked him out as an easy target. Shortly after joining the Army in 1988 he was the victim of a violent assault at the training centre in Woolwich.

As he was walking back to barracks one evening two Scottish paratroopers called him a "black bastard". They followed him before choosing a discreet moment to jump him. Nasar fought back but as he grappled with one of his assailants the other launched a powerful kick into his lower back. The attack left Nasar with a haematoma that would take five years to clear. But when he reported the attack he was told to put the incident behind him.

"[The commanding officer] didn't seem interested. His reaction was, it's happened, you're in training, you can't allow anything like this to knock you off track. I told him I wanted the Royal Military Police involved. But he didn't want them brought in and it was forgotten."

Nasar's first posting with the Royal Artillery took him to Germany, where the baiting got steadily worse. "Initially it started off as 'Paki' and 'black bastard'. Then it graduated to things like 'Paki twat', 'Muslim shite', and anything else that might have been funny for them but belittled me. It was really, really vile."

His haematoma deteriorated and in 1990 Nasar found himself transferred to lighter duties in the Quartermaster's Department. Here his technical sergeant, Jones (not his real name) carried on where his predecessor left off. "I'd worked under guys who were racist and they didn't exactly hide it. They'd make me do the worst jobs even though I was senior to the others. If there were four people standing around and I was the highest rank I'd still be sent to sweep the road while the others stood there. That undermined my authority."

Things reached a nadir in the run-up to the Gulf War of 1990. Rankled by Nasar's familiarity with the Arabic language and his experience of desert warfare acquired during an earlier five-year stint with the French Foreign Legion, Nasar's new sergeant began to demonstrate his dislike of "foreigners". "In the early stages he was calling me a 'fucking Paki bastard' almost casually. But whenever there was stress it would get more acute. Then he'd say things like, 'you're on the wrong side, you raghead' and 'you should be in Pakistan'."

In spite of this, Nasar emerged from the war with flying colours, earning himself a promotion to Lance Bombardier. But even that was not enough to appease his detractors. "When we came back from the Gulf the whole battery, about 100 men, was on exercise in Germany. Jones asked me why something hadn't been done. I said I'd been preoccupied. At that point he just burst out, 'listen here you black bastard, I'm telling you to do something, get away and do it now'."

And so it continued. By 1992, war had broken out in Bosnia, affording Jones another opportunity to blanket Muslims as troublemakers. By now Nasar was at his wits' end and he applied to join an elite section of the Royal Military Police. But army procedure obliged Jones to see Nasar's application. Ripping it up he is alleged to have said: 'They don't take Pakis in the special forces'."

To rub salt in the wound, Nasar's seniors brushed aside his complaints. Nasar's dossier lists instances every year since 1990 when he had complained to different people in different departments. The chain of command simply soaked up his protests. On occasions the culprit got a rap across the knuckles or a talking to. More often than not, however, Nasar was told to wind his neck in.

The armed forces' tendency to close ranks in the face of what they perceived as an internal threat was one of the failings addressed by the 1997 Armed Forces Act. Where previously soldiers' sole recourse would have been the Army Board, the Act now allows them to bring work-related complaints before an employment tribunal. Nasar's case is the first involving racial discrimination to be heard under the Act.

"Essentially, the Act brings the Army into line with modern employment legislation," explained Major David Ward from Scotts Rights, a law firm in the garrison town of Catterick. "Whereas there used to be a certain degree of crown immunity for the forces that has now been removed.

"Until the Army Act, soldiers with an employment grievance had two avenues. They could go directly to their commanding officer at whom the matter would stop. Or they could submit a redress of grievance - a written account of how they feel they have been wronged and how they feel it can be redressed.

"This would pass up the chain of command and usually end up with the Army Board. In the past their decision was final. But now if a complainant is unhappy with the decision and his dissatisfaction has a basis in law he can take his grievance to an employment tribunal."

There is no doubt that the Army Act has given Nasar, now 35, a fighting chance of preventing a certain whitewash. Even now, he claims the Army is simply sitting on the findings of its investigation into his redress of grievance, an inquiry which only got going once the case had attracted media attention. Having interviewed some of Nasar's former colleagues the probe confirmed that some of his most serious allegations have foundation.

The discrimination case may set another precedent. In addition to bringing a claim under the 1976 Race Relations Act, Nasar's lawyers are also arguing that their client's rights under the 1998 Human Rights Act have been infringed. Nasar was never provided with a halal meat diet and had to make do with cans of tinned fish during exercises and operations. Moreover, the type of abuse he faced was often of an explicitly religious nature.

The Act, which does not come into force until October 2000 but has retrospective effect without limit of time, incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights into British law. Invoking the convention's provisions on freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief, Nasar's lawyers maintain that these impose a duty on signatory states to enact securing legislation. As yet, Britain has no laws against religious discrimination and the remit of the Race Relations Act does not extend to religion, although by some quirk of legal interpretation, it covers Jews and Sikhs.

Nasar was medically discharged from the Army in August 1998 after sustaining another, this time debilitating, injury to his back. Although the father of four retains fond memories of his time in the Army he is intent on exacting justice, to the tune of £150,000 in compensation.

He says: "I accept that when you join the Army you've got to take everything that comes with it. But racism is not part of the deal."