Iraqi youth drowned 'when British soldiers forced him to swim across canal' after arrest

By Justin Huggler in Basra

28 February 2004


British soldiers have been accused of forcing a 16-year-old Iraqi boy to his death in a canal in Basra. A witness claims he and Ahmad Jabbar Kareem were among four youths captured by British troops in the city last May, driven to the canal and ordered across. Three survived, but Ahmad, who could not swim, drowned.

His case is one of seven suspicious deaths in British custody that the Ministry of Defence has admitted it is investigating since The Independent on Sunday revealed the story of Baha Mousa, who died after being arrested last September. But the MoD refused to divulge details of most of the cases, and the allegations surrounding Ahmad's death have only recently begun to emerge.

According to the dead 16-year-old's family, British military investigators have exhumed his body and performed an autopsy.

There are similarities between his case and another, more recent case, in which American soldiers were accused of forcing a young man, Zeidun Fadhil, to his death in the Tigris river outside the city of Samarra in January. There is no evidence of any link between the two cases.

The British military has come under intense scrutiny over allegations of torture and mistreatment of civilian prisoners which have emerged from Basra, and Amnesty International is demanding an independent inquiry.

Ahmad's case is unlike other cases that have emerged so far, in which witnesses allege Iraqi civilians died after being kicked and beaten by British soldiers. His case rests on the testimony of Ayad Salim Hanoon, another Iraqi youth who alleges he was with Ahmad when he drowned.

According to Ayad, he was near al-Sa'ad Square in Basra when a British patrol nearby came under fire. He took cover with some other youths behind a shop. After the shooting stopped, the British soldiers searched the area and arrested Ayad and three others. Even though none of them was armed, they were taken away in an armoured personnel carrier, Ayad claims. One of the four was Ahmad Jabbar Kareem.

The four youths had never met before, but each agreed that if anything happened to any of the others he would let their families know, says Ayad. They were taken first to the Republican Hospital, then to the Zubeir bridge over the canal.

Here, he alleges, the soldiers ordered the four youths to swim across the canal.

The other two were strong swimmers and easily made it across. Ayad claims he saw Ahmad, who could not swim, struggling desperately before drowning, but says he was unable to help because he is a poor swimmer himself.

Ayad says he kept his promise and went to find Ahmad's family to tell them about his death. The other two youths involved do not appear to have come forward.

The Independent has seen the police report that Ayad filed after the incident, in which he testifies that the British soldiers "ordered us to swim in the Basra canal" and that "Ahmad Jabbar Kareem could not survive and he drowned". The report has an official stamp from al-Hussein police station in Basra; the signature of the investigating officer is illegible.

With the MoD refusing to divulge details of the cases it is investigating, human rights representatives have faced the near-impossible task of tracking down relatives and witnesses in the vast slums where most of Basra's three million residents live, armed only with a name. Ahmad's story has emerged thanks to the work of a local Iraqi human rights group, the Human Rights Society for the South of Iraq, which documented the case when the allegations were first made.

The MoD is clearly taking the claims seriously if the family's assertion that Ahmad's body has been exhumed for an autopsy is true. From her desperately poor home in the Basra slums, where there is no furniture and people sit on reed mats on the floor, Ahmad's mother, Zahra, is demanding that the British Army admits responsibility for her son's death.

The house is thick with flies. A crude painting of the 16-year-old hangs in the main room, almost the only decoration.

"The British came to ask us questions," says Ahmad's aunt, Fadhila Ali. "They said they thought that maybe they were not responsible. Perhaps the other youths killed him and dumped his body in the river. But we do not accept this."

Ahmad was buried in the Shia holy city of Najaf. The family complain that the investigators exhumed the body without notifying them. They say the officials wanted to remove the body immediately, but the family insisted it could not be disturbed until the end of the 40-day period of mourning. The family alleges that on the 38th day the investigators exhumed the body and then reburied it. The family says it only found out afterwards.

The similarities between Ahmad's case and that of Zeidun Fadhil are uncanny. In both cases, the dead man was allegedly ordered into the water by occupation soldiers even though he could not swim. In both cases, a witness survived. But Zeidun Fadhil died eight months after Ahmad, hundreds of miles north of Basra, in Samarra, and the soldiers in his case were American, not British. There is little contact between the American forces around Baghdad and British troops in Basra.

It is conceivable that the witness in one case heard the details of the other and copied them. But the allegations surrounding Ahmad's death had not emerged when Zeidun Fadhil's story was first reported - yet Ahmad's case was apparently under investigation months before Zeidun Fadhil was killed, if the body was exhumed when the family claims.