Soldiers escape charges over death of sergeant and Iraqi

Kim Sengupta
Friday 28 April 2006 00:00 BST

No British soldiers will face charges over the shootings which led to the deaths of Sgt Steven Roberts and a civilian in Iraq.

The Attorney General announced yesterday that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute seven soldiers under investigation in connection with the killings on 24 March 2003.

Sgt Roberts, 33, from Shipley, West Yorkshire, with the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment, had been ordered to give his enhanced body armour to another soldier because of a shortage of equipment, when he was hit by "friendly fire" during disturbances at Al Zubayr near Basra. The Iraqi, Zahir Zabti Zaher, was repeatedly shot in the same incident while allegedly throwing stones at the troops. Iraqi human rights activists claimed that he had been "executed" by soldiers enraged at the death of Sgt Roberts.

Samantha Roberts, the sergeant's widow, said: "The fact remains that three years after my husband's death I know little more about how he came to meet his death than when I was first told that he had been killed. This is not a satisfactory situation either for myself, Steve's family or all the people who loved him and feel the loss."

Mrs Roberts, 34, added: "I can only hope that the coroner will now conduct an inquest into the circumstances of Steve's death with full access to the evidence that has been gathered by prosecuting authorities."

In an audio diary recorded for his wife before he died, Sgt Roberts had complained about lack of protection. "It's disheartening because we know we are going to war without the correct equipment," he said in one tape. "It will be interesting to see what armour I actually get. I will keep you posted".

Sgt Roberts' mother, Marion Chapman, said: "Steve would still be here today if he had that jacket on, which they seem to push under the carpet."

Inquiries by the Royal Military Police were halted by Lord Goldsmith in October 2004 because of "a concerted attempt by the chain of command to influence and prevent an investigation". He turned the matter over to the Metropolitan Police. "I was concerned that the intervention by the chain of command, and the delays in the case, could have led to defence lawyers raising abuse of process arguments had the soldiers been charged with criminal offences," said the Attorney General.

The civilian police officers discovered a number of new witnesses, including American soldiers who saw the incident. Police also exhumed the body of Mr Zaher for a post-mortem examination.

Lord Goldsmith told the House of Lords yesterday that it would have been better to have concluded a full investigation earlier. "I very much regret the stress that any delay must have causedMrs Roberts, Mr Zaher's relatives and the soldiers and their families," he said.

Lord Goldsmith insisted that the Crown Prosecution Service now had a "full account" of what happened. He said Sgt Roberts was on a patrol with three Challenger II tanks when Mr Zaher began throwing stones. After signalling him to stop, Sgt Roberts, who was standing alone outside his tank, is said to have fired one shot from his pistol before it jammed. Soldiers in the tanks opened fire and the sergeant was hit by two bullets.

Mr Zaher was also shot and "severely wounded" in the arm, said Lord Goldsmith. "As soldiers dismounted from their tanks to give assistance to Sgt Roberts, Mr Zaher got up holding a rock and started towards him again.

"One soldier, who had gone to assist Sgt Roberts, said he feared that Mr Zaher was about to attack again so he fired his pistol several times and Mr Zaher again fell to the floor.

"According to some soldiers, despite his injuries, Mr Zaher again got up to advance on Sgt Roberts holding a rock. The soldier who was attending Sgt Roberts perceived that Mr Zaher still posed a threat and directed another soldier to shoot Mr Zaher. On this occasion he did not get up."

The decision not to prosecute any of the soldiers was welcomed by the Ministry of Defence. "We are grateful that it has been made clear that there was no wrongdoing or malicious conduct by the chain of command in relation to this investigation," said a spokesman. "We will be looking at the issues raised by the Attorney General regarding the investigative process but he has made it 'abundantly clear that there is no suggestion that the chain of command acted unlawfully'."

Military justice

* L/Cpl Darren Larkin, Cpl Daniel Kenyon and L/Cpl Mark Cooley, of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, were convicted in February 2005 in connection with the abuse of prisoners at Basra's Camp Breadbasket. They were jailed for 19 weeks, 18 months and two years respectively.

* Seven members of the 3rd Battalion the Parachute Regiment were cleared at a court martial in November 2005 of murdering the 18-year-old Iraqi Nadhim Abdullah at al-Amarra, southern Iraq.

* The court martial of Pte Stuart Mackenzie, of the Lancastrian and Cumbrian Volunteers, who had been charged with taking fake photographs of abuse that had appeared in the Daily Mirror, was abandoned in April 2005.

* Flt Lt Malcolm Kendall-Smith was sentenced to eight months in prison at a court martial in Aldershot barracks, Hampshire, for refusing to serve in Iraq. He told the hearing that he believed the war was illegal.

* The court-martial of four British soldiers, three from the Irish Guards and one from the Coldstream Guards, accused of the manslaughter of an Iraqi youth, Ahmed Kareem, officially opened on Monday.

* Col Jorge Mendonca, former commanding officer of the 1st Battalion Queen's Lancashire Regiment, and Major Michael Peebles, of the Intelligence Corps, will face a court martial later this year along with five other soldiers in connection with the death of Baha Da'oud Mousa, who died while in custody in Basra.

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