Four British soldiers face courts martial over abuse of Iraqis

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The Independent Online

`British troops are to face courts martial, charged with abusing and humiliating Iraqi prisoners. Four soldiers from the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers are accused of assault and indecent assault of the prisoners, the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, announced yesterday. It was also disclosed that reports on four other cases have been sent to army prosecutors, with a decision on possible charges due soon.

The four Fusiliers, who were attached to the 7th Armoured Brigade, are alleged to have forced their victims to commit sexual acts with each other. It is also claimed that prisoners were bound, gagged and left hanging in netting from a forklift truck.

In a written statement to the House of Lords, the Attorney General detailed the scale of allegations of mistreatment against British forces.

Seventy-five cases are being investigated of civilian deaths, injuries and alleged mistreatment of Iraqis at the hands of the British. Another death, revealed by The Independent last month to be that of Hassan Abbad Saied, has been referred to the Crown Prosecution Service and Scotland Yard.

The case of Baha Mousa, 26, who was allegedly beaten to death by British soldiers during interrogation in September, is under investigation by the Army Prosecuting Authority.

Yesterday's announcement on the charges will fuel the continuing controversy over the Iraq war and the behaviour of the occupation forces.

Adam Price MP, who has led calls in Parliament to bring troops who have abused Iraqi civilians to justice, accused the Ministry of Defence of dragging its feet over the trials and being excessively secretive.

"The Attorney General has taken a bigger role in this issue and the reason is that there has been an abject failure within the Ministry of Defence to address it. It has taken more than a year to reach a stage where people are facing charges," he said. "In the United States, soldiers were facing a trial within a couple of months."

Last week the Commons Defence Committee announced that a cross-party group of MPs will examine the role of British troops in Iraq, due to growing doubts about their legal status and the persistent allegations of human rights abuse.

Crispin Blunt MP, a member of the Commons committee who has visited Iraq, said yesterday that the situation there was "on a knife edge". He added: "If the new Iraq government collapses in a wave of anarchy and the population turn on the coalition forces, that is going to be a nightmare situation."

The decision to try the four fusiliers was taken on Friday. No date has been set for the courts martial, to be held in public. The abuse came to the notice of the Royal Military Police when one of the soldiers returned recently from Iraq.

Private Gary Bartlam, 18, took a roll of film to be developed at a processing shop at Tamworth, Staffordshire. A store assistant, Kelly Tilford, 22, alerted other members of staff after feeling, she said, "physically sick" at seeing the images. Pte Bartlam was arrested, followed by seven others from his unit.

Lord Goldsmith said in his statement: "The charges against the four include assault, indecent assault which apparently involves making the victims engage in sexual activity between themselves, and a military charge of prejudicing good order and military discipline.

"The case concerns conduct alleged to have occurred while the civilians were being temporarily detained, but not in a prison or detention facility. It involves photographic evidence developed in this country and referred to the UK police."

The Attorney General added that one of the cases, that of an alleged unlawful killing of an Iraqi, confirmed yesterday as Hassan Abbad Saied, in custody, was being investigated by civilian authorities because the charges were originally dismissed by the commanding officer of the soldier involved. This meant that he could not be tried under military law.

After the arrest of Pte Bartlam, his mother, Margaret, said: "He does not belong to us any more. The Army is his mother. It's the Army that looks after him. I feel sorry for our lad because he has gone through a lot. We know it's very serious, but he is young. We haven't even spoken to him yet."