I saw my friend drown after British soldiers beat us up, says Iraqi

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The Independent Online

A young Iraqi told a court martial how he could do nothing to save his 15-year-old companion from drowning after both of them were allegedly beaten and forced into a canal by British soldiers who were throwing stones.

Speaking publicly for the first time about the death of Ahmed Jabar Karheem, the witness, Aiad Salim Hanon, said he was repeatedly punched and kicked by the soldiers after being arrested as a suspected looter along with three other Iraqis.

Mr Hanon, 25, who appeared in court in a blue and white striped shirt and jeans, described how Ahmed, who could not swim and also suffered from asthma, desperately tried to stop himself being swept away by the tide.

"There was mud beneath our feet, it was slippery. There was a tide. He [Ahmed] just raised his hand but then he was under the water and then he raised them again. Both arms were stretched out of the water, but there was no sound from him. Then he vanished. There was nothing I could do because I could not swim well."

The soldiers - four guardsmen - had thrown stones at the four Iraqis to make them enter the Shatt al-Basra canal, Mr Hanon told the hearing at Colchester barracks in Essex. He said he climbed back to shore after his captors drove away in their Warrior armoured vehicle. One of the guardsmen had momentarily made a move to try to save the drowning boy, but was waved away by the others, he said.

Sgt Carle Selman, 39, then of the Coldstream Guards and now serving with the Scots Guards; L/Cpl James Cooke, 22; Guardsman Joseph McCleary, 24; and Guardsman Martin McGing, 22, all of the Irish Guards, all deny the manslaughter of Mr Karheem on 8 May 2003 in Basra, following the invasion of Iraq earlier that year.

After being arrested, the four Iraqis were first taken to Basra general hospital, before being taken to the canal.

Mr Hanon, a welder, claimed that the soldiers repeatedly assaulted him. He described how he was punched in the eye and dragged along the ground by British soldiers, injuring his arm and knee. "I was hit once and I fell on the floor, and then a soldier dragged me. There were four of them, we were four and each was taking one of us", he said. "We were beaten by fists, by feet, and kicked all the way to the hospital."

Cross-examined by Richard Lissack QC on behalf of L/Cpl Cooke, Mr Hanon admitted theft. He was supporting his family, he said, on the equivalent of 15 pence a day. "There was bombing by Bush at the time, there was a curfew, we could not work. It was a catastrophe, we were very hungry, it [stealing] was wrong, but we had no other option".

Mr Hanon told the court that he and the others were in the process of stealing from a garage when he was arrested by a combined British and Iraqi patrol. "There were no jobs, no work, we were intending to take goods to sell them to support our families," he said.

Mr Hanon acknowledged that he had been told at the British military headquarters at Basra airport and another British base at Shaiba that there was a "good possibility" of receiving compensation for what he had undergone while in British custody.

But he insisted that he had gone to make a statement to the British authorities along with Mr Karheem's uncle purely to record what had happened. "I was telling the truth," he said.

The hearing continues.