Abu Ghraib-style torture was used on us, say German army conscripts

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The Independent Online

German army conscripts broke their silence yesterday over a scandal of widespread physical abuse of soldiers at a military base, and told how they were bound, beaten and subjected to electric shocks by instructors in staged hostage-taking exercises this year.

German army conscripts broke their silence yesterday over a scandal of widespread physical abuse of soldiers at a military base, and told how they were bound, beaten and subjected to electric shocks by instructors in staged hostage-taking exercises this year.

The scandal, which has provoked comparisons with the torture of Iraqi detainees at the US Army's Abu Ghraib prison, is being investigated by state prosecutors and 16 NCOs have been suspended, although no victim had been prepared to speak out in public.

But yesterday, two soldiers said they were among 80 conscripts subjected to systematic maltreatment at the German army's Coesfeld base near Münster between July and September last year. They told Bild newspaper they were abused during regular hostage-taking exercises in which they were hooded and beaten.

One soldier, identified as Sven G, told Bild he was in a group of 12 recruits on a 20km night march. "Suddenly we were grabbed by masked men who pulled sacks over our heads and bound our limbs," he said. "We had no chance to defend ourselves."

The conscripts were pushed on to a lorry and taken to a cellar for "interrogation". Another recruit, Lars K, told Bild: "We all had to kneel down and wait. Some lay down, they couldn't get up because of how they were tied. Then every one of us was led away and interrogated. They screamed at us. If we didn't answer correctly, they screamed even more. Some of us were sprayed with water, others were struck on the neck. It was so humiliating."

Lars K told the newspaper he had witnessed recruits being given electric shocks by their instructors. "They held a wire on the neck of one of my companions and gave him electric shocks," he said, "They forced him on to the floor, but he kept on screaming."

Other evidence, apparently leaked by state prosecutors to the German media, stated that army instructors were reported to have applied electric shocks to the groin, neck and stomachs of their victims and to have recorded the abuse on video. One recruit was said to have been shown naked from the waist down.

Unidentified witnesses also spoke of recruits "gripped by panic" who tried to attack their instructors during the abuse sessions and of others who returned to their barracks after the "simulated torture" and wept all night.

"The affair raises nasty associations with the conditions at the Abu Ghraib US military prison in Iraq," Der Spiegel magazine said, pointing out that the abuse was committed at almost the same time as reports about the Iraqi prison scandal started appearing.

One of the abused recruits told Bild that none of the victims had dared to speak out until now because they were terrified of being branded a "weakling or a coward" by their comrades.

Münster prosecutors began investigating 20 German corporals and an officer serving as a captain in connection with the affair last week.

Sixteen of those being investigated have been suspended from the ranks. But Wolfgang Schweer, the chief state prosecutor, said the number of suspected culprits could easily rise. The affair has shocked senior German army officers, because most of the recruits subjected to abuse were not destined to enter combat zones but were conscripts doing ordinary military service, generally served within Germany.

Peter Struck, the German Defence Minister, said the abuse at Coesfeld was an "isolated incident", and warned that any officers caught maltreating recruits would be summarily dismissed from service.

General Alois Bloch said simulated hostage-taking was standard practice for soldiers being sent abroad. "It is indispensable for mission training, but it should done only by specially trained staff," he said.

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