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Home > Politics

British Justice: A Little On The Rough Side

12 June 2006

This week three soldiers were found not guilty of the manslaughter of an Iraqi teenager at a court martial held in Colchester. The squaddies had all denied the manslaughter of 15-year-old Ahmed Jabber Kareem, who drowned in a Basra canal in 2003.

The three military policemen were accused of making a group of looters swim Shatt al-Basra canal, causing Kareem, a non-swimmer, to drown. The looters had been picked up in Basra and driven to the canal, to suffer what seems to have been 'punishment by gruelling return journey' - they'd have to swim the canal and make the long walk back to their homes. However, it was claimed by the looters that they were threatened with being shot if they didn't swim the river. It has also been claimed that they were beaten in the armoured personnel carrier on the way to the canal, and that when Kareem was seen to be drowning, one squaddie attempted to help but was restrained by his colleagues.

It's worth noting that considering a court is meant to establish the facts of a case, *precisely* what happened is still unclear in all the reports we've read. However, it's obvious that the looters *were* made to swim the river - although the exact method of coercion is unclear (they may simply have been pushed in). But can it be right that British troops are going around Iraq dispensing rough justice that kills people?

OK. There are many mitigating factors. The Iraqis were looters. A traditional approach to looters is simply to shoot them, and the looters on the whole probably got more lenient treatment at the hands of the Brits than they would have from the Iraqi police (apart from Kareem, obviously). In terms of the evidence actually presented against the military policemen, the court martial concluded that there were inconsistencies in the evidence given by one of the looters, and allegations that the looters were beaten while being taken to the canal were unproven.

Most importantly, at the time of Kareem's death there were only 63 military policemen in Basra, a city with a population of 700,000. There had been a large outbreak of looting, and our troops apparently received little clear instruction about what to do, instead being left to come up with ad hoc punishments for looters. As the Guardian reported: 'Military witnesses said looters were "wetted" in rivers and canals in an attempt to make them feel uncomfortable.' An interesting turn of phrase - is that 'uncomfortable' in the sense of 'fucking terrified'?

But the biggest mitigating factor is the lack of leadership: soldiers were expected to do *something*, but not told *what*. As Max Hastings put it in the Guardian: 'Soldiers in Basra in 2003 were, in effect, invited to invent their own system of local justice, because Bush and Blair had failed to make provision for any other.'

However, as with so much going on in Iraq, there are some terrifying double standards at work. The occupation of Iraq is meant to be restoring law and order, not putting in place a random form of martial law. Obviously our troops can't behave like civilian policemen in a war zone, but nonetheless they're enforcing the 'law' in a way that not only increases hostility to the occupying forces, but would also be considered an outrage if it happened in the UK.

Possibly the only faintly amusing thing about the whole incident is this little irony: the solicitor for guardsman Martin McGing told the press that the whole case had left the soldier 'embittered', but that McGing intends to continue serving his country, most likely by joining the UK police.

Concerned? We should be wetting ourselves.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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