"Sacrificial lambs"

British soldiers convicted of abuse of Iraqi detainees say they were singled out to shield their superiors.

By Audrey Gillan

Published February 24, 2005 4:11PM (EST)

It has been more than 20 months since a roll of film containing horrific images of British soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners was taken to a small processing shop in Tamworth, Staffordshire, by a somewhat naive soldier. During that time, the British army has been unable to find the men responsible for stripping the Iraqis and forcing them to "put on a sex show" and perform simulated acts of oral and anal sex for the camera.

Wednesday, three men -- Corporal Daniel Kenyon and Lance Corporals Darren Larkin and Mark Cooley -- were convicted in relation to those photos. Another, Fusilier Gary Bartlam, had earlier pleaded guilty to taking the pictures. But not one soldier has been charged in connection with forcing the Iraqis to simulate sex acts and give their thumbs up to the camera, despite months of investigation by the royal military police.

In spite of admitting to other incidents of abuse a month before the simulated sex acts took place, Bartlam had a number of charges against him dropped in return for implicating his fellow soldiers. In the witness box, Bartlam named another soldier as the one who had forced the prisoners to take off their clothes: That man has not been charged.

The court-martial panel of seven officers and Judge Advocate Michael Hunter sat through five weeks of evidence in a cold attic courtroom at a British army barracks in Germany. They listened to a series of witnesses who were at Camp Breadbasket in May 2003 when the abuse occurred, but none admitted to any wrongdoing apart from Larkin, who was caught on film.

The army term "moral courage" was heard time and again, a phrase that in this instance means simply having the bravery to disobey an order that is wrong and report it higher up the chain of command. But the court heard that in spite of being given an order that was in direct contravention of the Geneva Convention, none of more than 70 soldiers had the moral courage to refuse to round up Iraqi looters and "work them hard" as a punishment for stealing humanitarian aid.

Two additional words were used often: "loyalty" and "grass." As one of the accused put it: "I am in an infantry battalion. If you are not loyal and you don't have respect, people die. That's how we work; that's why we're a great regiment. I am not a grass, sir."

After all the evidence it seemed the panel was no clearer as to what really happened on that morning, two weeks after the war in Iraq was officially declared over. They heard fusiliers claim they were not there, had been sleeping or had not seen anything. Officers denied witnessing 20 Iraqi men being forced to run around with milk boxes on their heads while being beaten around the legs. A major described how he had destroyed his notes from the time because he had moved house weeks before the case began.

The crucial evidence that they did not hear was that of the Iraqi victims themselves, who the prosecution claimed could not be tracked down.

Two things the panel can be almost certain of is that had the abuse not been photographed, it would not have come to light, and that torture was more widespread across the British sector in Iraq than the army has previously admitted. They also found out that several senior officers -- all of whom were accused of misbehavior by the defense team -- have since been promoted. In spite of hearing serious allegations against senior officers, the panel was tasked only with deciding the fate of a fusilier, a lance corporal and a corporal. These three say that they have been served up as "sacrificial lambs."

Kenyon claimed Breadbasket was "one dirty infection," with senior soldiers allowing Iraqis to be physically hurt. He said his men had been infected by wrongdoing further up the chain of command. He said he had not reported that soldiers were beating Iraqis out of loyalty and because "you don't go grassing up a sergeant major in the rank above you." He did not report his own soldiers because he felt those above him had no "moral courage" and were breaking the law.

The court heard how Breadbasket's commanding officer, then Captain Dan Taylor, had devised a plan, code-named Operation Ali Baba, in which the soldiers were to rise at dawn and go "Ali Baba hunting." They were told to bring camouflage poles with them -- allegedly for their own protection, but the court was told that they were used to beat the thieves. The looters were to be brought back to the camp and "worked hard."

In spite of this being illegal, Major Taylor was promoted three months after the photographs were reported to the police. He was exonerated by the military five days before the court-martial began. He was let off because, though he had broken the law, he had acted with "well-meaning and sincere but misguided zeal."

On the stand, the major said he had told Lieutenant Colonel David Paterson, the commanding officer of the battalion in Iraq during the conflict, who has since been promoted to full colonel, how Operation Ali Baba would work. He claimed he did not see Iraqis being forced to run around the camp in a military practice known as "beasting."

Colonel Paterson denied that he had been told that the Iraqis were to be worked hard. He said he would not knowingly have approved of such a plan.

The major's regimental Quartermaster Sergeant Wilton Brown, since promoted to regimental sergeant major, said Major Taylor had told him to give the Iraqis a "thrashing," but the senior officer denied this. Sergeant Major Brown acknowledged that the run took place but denied seeing the Iraqis being beaten. Soldiers told the court that he had witnessed the "beasting" but no one wanted to "grass him up." Like other witnesses who "saw no evil, heard no evil, did no evil," Brown was accused of "remaining faithful to the members of [his] regiment."

Sergeant Thomas Symon spoke of his revulsion at seeing two naked Iraqi prisoners who were being humiliated by laughing soldiers. He immediately told the detainees to put their clothes back on. The sergeant, who was promoted from corporal after the war, admitted that he had seen the two naked men being forced to simulate sex, but did not tell anyone higher up. Unlike Kenyon, he was not charged with failing to report this.

The prosecution denied the soldiers were being made scapegoats, but Joseph Giret, for Kenyon, said: "According to the prosecution, everyone should have moral courage to report things that they thought were wrong, but we know that nobody reported anyone. We know that in this case there are double standards. Many people should have had moral courage and didn't, and somehow the standards have been dropped in their case ... The prosecution are keeping as quiet as possible here because if they start admitting their witnesses have lied, they are in trouble."

Audrey Gillan

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