A British soldier saw his platoon sergeant fire automatic rifle rounds into the twitching bodies of two Iraqi gunmen lying on the ground during a battle in 2004, he said in a written witness statement released on Wednesday.
In his evidence to a public inquiry into Iraqi allegations of atrocities by British troops during or after the battle of Danny Boy on 14 May 2004, Duncan Aston also said he had seen a fellow soldier stomp on the head of a dead man.
A private at the time who has since left the army, Aston further described seeing three fellow soldiers punch and kick an Iraqi detainee captured during the firefight, named after a checkpoint near the town of Majar al-Kabir in southern Iraq.
The al-Sweady Inquiry is investigating a range of allegations including that British troops captured some Iraqis alive and later executed them at their camp, that they mutilated bodies, and that they tortured detainees.
If the inquiry were to confirm the most serious Iraqi allegations, the Danny Boy events would go down as some of the worst atrocities of the Iraq war, inviting comparison with the abuse of prisoners by US troops at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib jail.
The inquiry has no power to prosecute but, depending on its conclusions, military prosecutors could decide to bring charges.
Almost all the 200 British military witnesses who are scheduled to give evidence at the inquiry over the coming months deny that any of the alleged crimes happened.
Aston is one of just five “conflicted witnesses” whose accounts differ and may back up some of the Iraqi allegations.
The inquiry took evidence from 60 Iraqi witnesses between March and June and started hearing the military witnesses on Monday. A final report into the events is expected in late 2014.
In his written statement, released by the inquiry as Aston began giving oral evidence on Wednesday, the former private described a scene during the battle that took place in a ditch where the bodies of six Iraqi gunmen lay on the ground.
He said two of the bodies were twitching and looked as if they were “drifting somewhere between life and death”.
Aston said that Paul Kelly, then his platoon sergeant, approached the ditch looking angry and tried to fire at one of the twitching bodies. The weapon did not fire and Kelly ordered Aston to hand over his own weapon, which Aston said he did.
“He put a full magazine of bullets into both bodies that had been twitching but he also fired into the bodies of the other dead gunmen in the ditch. The bodies of the two twitching gunmen stopped twitching,” he said.
Aston said he felt what Kelly had done was “a bit sick and degrading but not something worse” as the men were close to death if not dead already.
Describing a separate incident earlier in the battle, Aston said he saw Steven Wells, a fellow private, stamp on the head of another dead Iraqi while screaming and shouting.
“I thought he was letting some anger go after the firefight,” Aston said. He also described seeing Wells and two other privates kicking and punching an Iraqi detainee in a derelict building where he was under guard.
“Everyone was a bit upset about the whole scenario of British soldiers being ambushed and attacked when we felt we were in Iraq to assist,” Aston said. Kelly, Wells and the other soldiers are all due to testify to the inquiry later.
Aston said he had not reported the events at the time as “I didn’t think it would be best to grass my friends in.”
He added: “Now I’m just here … telling the truth of what happened. I figured if I had withheld the truth now then it would come home and bite me in the arse at some point.” re
The 2003 invasion of Iraq by a US-led coalition led to numerous instances of human rights violations by occupying troops, including the use of torture, sexual and psychological abuse in the infamous Abu Ghraib prison.
Some 120,000 British troops served in Iraq during the occupation before their withdrawal in 2009.
In 2011, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the United Kingdom had breached the European Convention on Human Rights by failing to investigate the killing of five Iraqis by British troops in 2003.
An inquiry into the 2003 death of Iraqi hotel receptionist Baha Mousa while in British custody condemned “inadequate detention procedures, leadership failures, poor training, a loss of discipline, and a lack of ‘moral courage’ among soldiers to report abuse,” NGO Human Rights Watch reported. The case led to the first conviction of a British soldier under international war crimes legislation.
Britain is also holding a separate wide-ranging public inquiry into the Iraq war, which is due to report later this year.
The British Defense Ministry says it has already settled 227 claims with compensation payouts totalling $23.7 million over human rights violations by British troops in Iraq between 2003 and 2009.