The commander of British troops in Iraq accused of unlawfully killing and torturing civilians in the Basra area in 2004 never gave an order for the bodies of dead militants to be removed from the battlefield.
The wounds to those bodies and how they were sustained is one of the key points of contention in the Al Sweady Inquiry in London which is trying to determine if British troops killed and tortured Iraqis and when those bodies were handed back. Iraqis claim they found evidence of torture.
Death certificates issued by Iraqi authorities note the dead had injuries that included eyes removed, torture marks over their entire bodies, severed penises and removal of genitals and most bodies had tread marks from army boots.
On the day in question May 14, 2004, Brigadier Matthew Maer, DSM OBE, was in Basra and only returned to the Camp Abu Naji base at dusk, after sporadic fighting now known as "The Battle of Danny Boy" Maer, who has been honoured by Queen Elizabeth with an Order of the British Empire, was a Lieutenant-Colonel in charge of the First Battalion of the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment in the Maysan area of southern Iraq in 2004.
His men, along with Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, fought a pitched battle with Iraqi militants. It’s the aftermath of the Battle of Danny Boy that’s the key focus of this inquiry. Iraqis say wounded men were shot as they lay on the ground after the fight.
Others were collected up by the British troops then shot later, while others were detained and tortured at Camp Abu Naji and later at another army logistics base for five months. Maer was the camp commander at Abu Naji and was awarded a Distinguished Service Medal for his role with the British military in Iraq.
As far as the UK’s Ministry of Defence and army says, no Iraqis were illegally killed, tortured or abused. For the past decade, the Iraqis have been trying to have British authorities brought to justice for their alleged deaths and torture allegations.
A judicial review in 2009 before the High Court in London was forthright in holding that records and testimony given by troops on the ground was not consistent. The judges were also critical of the Royal Military Police’s own investigation into the incidents.
"We had never done it before," Maer said. He said that as a result of those bodies being brought to the base, "there are far reaching circumstances" -- including the eventual setting up of the inquiry. He understood that the decision to retrieve the bodies came from his brigade headquarters.
Maer testified that he later was told that the bodies were collected and photographed to try and determine if one was an Iraqi code-named "Bravo One" who had previously killed six Royal Military Police men in Majar Al Kabir. Maer also testified he did not recall how many bodies, or live prisoners were taken to his base.
The inquiry heard that a decade after the incident, there is still no firm number of the number of Iraqis involved. The inquiry is trying to determine where, when and the circumstances of how many Iraqis were killed on the day in question.
If proven true, the incident after the Battle of Danny Boy involving the Prince of Wales Royal Regiment and Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and Iraqi fighters would be the worst atrocity by the UK since the 1972 Bloody Sunday shootings in Northern Ireland by the Royal Paratroop Regiment.
Maer said that when the bodies were returned to the hospital at Majar Al Kabir, there were allegations made by representatives of the provincial governor that they had been tortured. Maer said he was told that a local police official who disagreed was shot on the spot by one of the governor’s bodyguards.
Maer said that he was aware the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) made allegations of mistreatment of Iraqis by British troops on the battlefield. Murder allegations were made on 15 May 2004.
The ICRC doctor reported that injuries sustained by the Iraqis showed excessive force — and that some of the detainees "had been given a bit of a kicking" and were humiliated by being forced to strip naked. Earlier, the tribunal heard from a civilian British military interpreter who can only be identified as MO13.
He is a graduate in Arabic studies who was present while the Iraqi detainees were interrogated and relayed their questions and answers to military officials. Under questioning, MO13 said he recalled one military officer wielding a tent pole.
He said that he recalled some of the officers present at the interrogation of the detainees had holstered pistol but could not recall if one was left on the table in front of the detainees. When the detainees were brought in for interrogation — one had a gunshot wound to his leg — they were wearing blacked-out goggles and their hands were restrained with plasticuffs.
The officer with the tent peg struck it hard on a table, making a sound that sounded like a gun shot, close to the blindfolded detainees.
He agreed that the sound of the tent pole and the sudden noise would be worrisome to a detainee who had been picked up after a battle and who was essentially fearful of the unknown. MO13 told the tribunal that he remembered the detainees being given large bottles of water to hold in their plasticuffed hands.
He said he didn’t recall any soldier guarding them squeezing the water bottles as they drank, causing the water to choke them or being forced out their noses. He said he remembered a radio in the shower area where the detainees were held before questioned.
He denied it was turned up loud and was tuned to constant static as white noise used to disorientate the detainees.
He described all of the detainees questioned as being generally dirty, some with cuts and bruises and one with a gunshot wound — with most being unable to formally sign or understand the documents provided to them explaining their rights or reasons for detention.
By Mick O’Reilly