Don't comment on case, judge tells politicians

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An army major who issued an order for Iraqi civilians detained for looting a British supply camp to be "worked hard" gave evidence yesterday at the court martial of three soldiers accused of torturing and sexually abusing their captives.

Major Dan Taylor of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers appeared at the hearing at an army base in the German town of Osnabrück which is trying Cpl Daniel Kenyon, 33, L/Cpl Mark Cooley, 25, and L/Cpl Darren Larkin, 30, for allegedly abusing Iraqi civilians in Iraq in 2003.

Photographs used as evidence against the accused were published earlier this week.

The alleged abuse took place at an army supply base outside the Iraqi city of Basra in May 2003, after British soldiers arrested and detained Iraqi civilians who had been caught looting supplies.

The case took an unexpected twist yesterday when the presiding Judge Advocate, Michael Hunter, urged politicians including Tony Blair to stop making public statements about it. His plea followed the Prime Minister's comments in the Commons on Wednesday in which he described the images as "shocking".

After the court martial proceedings were halted by legal argument, Judge Advocate Hunter said: "I appeal that no public statement, if possible, should be made with regards to this trial. I say appeal because I fully appreciate that there may well be times when somebody has to make a public statement. When questions were raised yesterday of such immense public concern, the Prime Minister could not have sensibly refused to make a statement."

He added: "I would ask that great care be taken that those who find it necessary to make public statements should not say anything that might prejudice the fairness of this trial."

Mr Blair took legal advice and consulted the Commons Speaker, Michael Martin, about what he could say about the case before Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday, when the issue was raised by the Tory leader, Michael Howard.

A No 10 spokesman insisted Mr Blair had made his remarks in general terms but took "full note" of what the Judge Advocate had said.

Defence lawyers have suggested that Major Taylor created a climate which sanctioned the offences of abuse because he issued a controversial order to "work hard" the detained Iraqi civilians which was in breach of the Geneva Conventions. His evidence is also likely to determine whether his superiors bore any blame for the alleged torture and abuse of Iraqi civilians.

Major Taylor told the court martial that he was given the job of quartermaster at the Army's "Camp Bread Basket" supply depot in May 2003.

While in charge of the camp, Major Taylor launched an operation codenamed "Ali Baba" aimed at detaining hundreds of Iraqi civilians who were looting the camp nightly. He told the court martial: "It was a massive storage depot. We had food, clothing, vehicle parts and masses of grain. But we had problems with looters and thieves which began as world food aid started being delivered to the camp in the last weeks of April 2003."

Major Taylor said that he had only eight soldiers and seventy civilian workers to guard the camp which was surrounded by a high wall covered with jagged glass to prevent looters breaking in.

"Initially we chased people off and they simply hopped over the wall," he said. But he added that when soldiers managed to capture looters he had difficulty in detaining them.

Major Taylor is due to continue giving evidence to the court martial today. It is likely to have a strong bearing on whether the defence lawyers have a case for their claims.