Soldiers 'allowed Iraqi boy to drown'

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The Independent Online

British soldiers drove a 15-year- old Iraqi boy who could not swim into a canal at gunpoint and threw stones at him as he floundered in "obvious distress" before drowning, a court martial was told yesterday.

Four guardsmen who were on the last day of their tour of duty in Iraq, are accused of forcing Ahmed Jabar Karheem, who was asthmatic, and three other suspected looters, into the waters in Basra "to teach them a lesson" and then driving away from the scene.

One of the Iraqis, 23-year-old Aiad Salim Hanon, managed to scramble out of the water and later told Ahmed's father what had happened and the family rushed to the canal bank and kept vigil for the whole day, said Orlando Pownall QC, for the prosecution. The boy's body, partially clothed and the face swollen, was found floating in the Shatt al-Basra canal the next day.

Colour 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, deny the manslaughter of Ahmed on 8 May 2003.

Mr Pownall told the military jury sitting at Colchester barracks in Essex: "It might be said as has been reported elsewhere that the coalition forces were ill-prepared for the occupation of Iraq and the maintenance of peace and received insufficient guidance.

"While no doubt the task of policing Basra and maintaining law and order would have been an onerous one, it is suggested that no soldier could have been left in any doubt as to the limits on force necessary."

Ahmed and the other Iraqis were arrested by a combined force of British soldiers and Iraqi police while they were in a garage in Basra. According to Mr Hanon, a welder, two British soldiers punched and kicked him and his clothes were torn off by an Iraqi policeman. The arrested men were then forced into a hole filled with stagnant water before being taken to a hospital where the same two British soldiers allegedly beat him again.

The four Iraqis were then taken to a bridge on the canal, al-Zubayr, by British soldiers in a Warrior armoured vehicle. Mr Pownall told the court that one soldier "gestured with his hand that Hanon should go into the water. He was pushed with a rifle and felt that he had no choice but to descend.

"The slope was gradual but muddy, neither he nor Ahmed could swim. Two of those who had been detained swam to the other side," Mr Pownall said.

"Two soldiers from the back of the vehicle threw bricks and stones while they were in the water. Kareem was in obvious distress as he was unable to swim. His head bobbed to the surface and then disappeared.

"One of the soldiers who was on the bank of the canal made as if to remove his clothing in order to rescue Kareem, but then returned to the Warrior tank, which drove away." Mr Pownall said even if the soldiers had not thought about their behaviour, "all sober and reasonable people would realise that their unlawful actions must have subjected the 15-year-old boy to the risk of at least some physical harm".

He added: "It is suggested that a clear picture emerges of their common design or plan to force the alleged looters into the water to teach them a lesson."

Mr Pownall continued: "It is the Crown's case that the activities of the four accused fell significantly and unlawfully outside what could be described as minimum necessary force.

"There was no need to use any force at all. The looters had already been punished in that stagnant pool. They were being driven away from Basra hospital to avoid a confrontation with the crowd who had gathered. All that was needed was for them to be released and to make their way home.

"That is not what happened, and the consequences of that is that a 15-year-old died needlessly and unlawfully."

Witness statements from three of the defendants - Guardsman McGing, Guardsman McCleary and L/Cpl Cooke - were read out to the court. The prosecution claimed that they were a "deliberate attempt to mislead" investigators.

Guardsman McGing's account, said Mr Pownall, " was a pack of lies as he was deliberately attempting to protect himself and others from the consequences of what they did".

Sgt Selman, the court was told, had asked others involved in the incident "not to say anything".

The hearing continues.