Remarks forced, sailors say

British ex-captives say Iranians coerced confessions, apologies

April 07, 2007|By Kim Murphy | Kim Murphy,Los Angeles Times

LONDON -- For two weeks, their televised confessions were seen by many here as a humiliating case of "surrender first and apologize after" by the British Navy. But yesterday, the sailors who spent 13 days in an Iranian jail disclosed that they were blindfolded and threatened into fabricating their confessions.

Their account, given only a day after leaving Tehran with gift bags of sweets and pistachios, appeared to turn Iran's carefully crafted public relations script on its head.

The sailors told of being locked in isolation for days, and said they were threatened with seven years in prison if they did not admit to entering Iranian waters.

"When we first went to prison, we were put up against a wall, hands bound, blindfolded, and there were people cocking weapons in the background," Lt. Felix Carman said at a news conference with six other former captives.

Faced with a growing tide of public questions over their conduct, the sailors said they had no choice but to surrender to the "heavily armed force" that confronted them.

"Let me be absolutely clear, from the outset it was very apparent that fighting back was simply not an option. Had we chosen to do so, then many of us would not be standing here today," Marine Capt. Chris Air said.

"We were not prepared to fight a heavily armed force who, it is our impression, came out deliberately into Iraqi waters to take us prisoner," he said. "We did our utmost to de-escalate the situation, but our words fell on deaf ears. They had come with a clear purpose and were never going to leave without us."

Air and his fellow former captives said all the navigation equipment they had on board during the incident showed clearly they were 1.7 miles inside "internationally recognized Iraqi territorial waters." Their public confessions, Carman said, were the result of intense pressure from the Iranians.

"We were interrogated most nights and presented with two options," he said. "If we admitted we had strayed, we would be on a plane back to the U.K. soon. If we didn't, we faced up to seven years in prison.

"At all times, if you listen carefully to what we said, we always used words like `apparently' or `we were perceived' or `according to this evidence.' At no time did we actually say we apologize for intruding in Iranian waters," he said. "At all times, we stuck to our guns, and we were conducting our operations legally."

The news conference was seen in Iran on Al-Jazeera's English-language broadcast, but there was no immediate official reaction. Days before, viewers had seen images of the British captives apologizing for entering Iranian waters and thanking Iranian officials for what they said was good treatment.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appeared dismissive of British Prime Minister Tony Blair's accusation that "elements" of the Iranian regime were "backing, financing, arming, supporting terrorism in Iraq."

Asked for his response, the Iranian president laughed. "Mr. Blair says such things a lot. I'm sorry that he says things like that," he said.

The sailors said yesterday that they had been conducting a routine search of a merchant vessel March 23 south of the Shatt al Arab waterway, when they saw two speedboats approach.

"I ordered everyone to make their weapons ready and ordered the boarding party to return to the boats," Air said. By the time everyone was back on board, two Iranian boats had pulled alongside their small, inflatable crafts. Air said he explained their mission to an officer who spoke good English, but when they tried to leave, the Iranians blocked their departure.

"Some of the Iranian sailors were becoming deliberately aggressive and unstable," he said.

Another six Iranian boats were closing in, Air said.

"We realized that had we resisted, there would have been a major fight, one we could not have won with consequences that would have had major strategic impact," he said.

Kim Murphy writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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