COLCHESTER, England, May 2 (Reuters) Four British soldiers today denied charges that they forced an Iraqi teenager into a canal where he drowned.
James Cooke and Martin McGing, both 22, and Joseph McCleary, 24, of the Irish Guards and Colour Sergeant Carle Selman, 39, of the Coldstream Guards, each stood in a makeshift courtroom to plead not guilty of manslaughter in the death of Ahmed Karheem.
If convicted at the court martial, the soldiers would be the first British troops punished for the death of an Iraqi and could face a maximum sentence of life in jail.
Karheem, 15, was among a group of four young Iraqis that the soldiers captured as suspected looters while on patrol in Basra in May 2003.
On the final day of their tour in Iraq, the soldiers drove the Iraqis in their Warrior armoured vehicle to a bridge outside town and made them swim, prosecutor Orlando Pownall told a seven-man military panel acting as jury.
Karheem, an asthmatic who could not so much as tread water, panicked and drowned in swirling currents.
The soldiers drove away without doing anything to save him.
His body was found near the bridge two days later.
''A clear picture emerges of a common design or plan to force the alleged looters into the water to teach them a lesson,'' Pownall said.
''All sober, reasonable people would realise that their unlawful actions must have subjected the 15-year-old boy to the risk of at least some physical harm.'' The room was also the scene of the only other trial of British soldiers accused of killing an Iraqi. Seven soldiers were cleared of murder last year when their trial collapsed because the judge found the Iraqi witnesses were unreliable.
The collapse of that case led to criticism of understaffed military police faced with the difficult task of investigating serious crimes in the Iraq war zone.
Commanders have complained that botched investigations are hurting the morale of troops in the field.
A third case against seven soldiers accused of killing an Iraqi hotel receptionist is due to be heard later this year. But British military prosecutors have so far had only limited success in securing convictions against troops in Iraq.
Three soldiers were convicted in 2005 over abuse of prisoners, but only after one had brought photos of the abuse to his local film lab to be developed.
The manslaughter trial of the four soldiers is expected to last up to five weeks. Prosecutors will summon Iraqi witnesses to testify by video link or in person, including one of the other suspected looters and the father of the victim.
Reuters PM GC2323