Soldier faces court martial over Iraqi boy shot by accident

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The Independent Online

A British soldier faces a court martial over a shooting in Iraq which left a 13-year-old boy seriously injured.

Private Alexander Johnston, of the 1st Battalion King's Own Scottish Borderers, is the fifth member of British forces to face trial over alleged crimes against civilians in Iraq.

The boy was shot at al- Uzayar, near Amarah, in the British-controlled southern region on 15 September last year. Pte Johnston, who was on guard duty, faces charges of unlawful wounding and negligent handling of a weapon. It is alleged he fired his rifle as he was adjusting his sleeves.

No date has been set for the court martial, which is expected to be held in Northern Ireland, where the battalion is now based.

The injured Iraqi boy was flown to England by the Ministry of Defence for treatment at a specialist unit. According to defence sources he is likely to receive substantial compensation whatever the outcome of the court martial.

The boy's identity is protected by a court order and cannot be published. But The Independent has learnt his account of the event. He developed a good relationship with British soldiers based in the town, and collected cigarettes and soft drinks for them from shops, for $3 a trip.

On 15 September, he returned from his shopping run and was talking to Pte Johnston who he says was laughing and joking with other soldiers while attempting to roll up his sleeves. That was when the shot was fired.

The boy was taken to the British military hospital in Basra where surgeons removed the bullet and stabilised his condition, but could not deal with the more serious injuries.

He was flown by the Ministry of Defence to a Manchester hospital, then on to a South Yorkshire hospital where he has remained for the past seven months. The child's father, a security guard for an Iraqi oil company in Basra, accompanied the child to Britain. But he has returned home after being told that his continued absence would lead to dismissal.

Despite the extent of the child's injuries, his carers have had to go to court to keep him in Britain indefinitely and get visas for his family to visit. In May they were granted temporary visas valid until September.

The Sheffield-based solicitors Howells represent him but they have declined to discuss the case because of legal proceedings.

Last March, the firm's Guy Baddeley said that returning to Iraq would be detrimental to the boy's health and a breach of his human rights. "He has been seriously injured through no fault of his own. The UK has taken responsibility for him thus far by bringing him here for treatment - quite rightly, as he was injured by a British soldier and particularly as he was helping them at the time.

"But we believe the responsibility does not end there. He has already faced an extremely traumatic time and has gone through it without the day-to-day support of his parents who remain in Iraq. We are now fighting for his right to remain here and to be joined by his parents," he said. The firm is also suing the Ministry of Defence for negligence.

Dr Hadi Ali, a science teacher, has acted as the boy's interpreter during his stay. He said: "At the very least we wanted a six-month visitor visa for the family. For a boy to be away from his mother and siblings is not right. I have spoken to his family regularly on the phone and they are desperately anxious about him but do not want him to go back as there is no provision for someone in his condition."