Freed British sailors say Iranians coerced statements about being in Iran's waters
ROYAL MARINE BASE CHIVENOR, England &
British sailors and marines freed by Iran said Friday they were blindfolded, isolated in cold stone cells and tricked into fearing execution while being coerced into falsely saying they had entered Iranian waters.
They said there was no doubt the 15 crew members were in Iraq's territorial waters when they were seized by heavily armed boats of Iran's Revolutionary Guard. They also said their jailers had singled out the only woman among the captives for use in propaganda.
Iran, which has been celebrating the incident as a victory, quickly rejected the charges, dismissing a news conference held by six of the freed personnel as "propaganda" and "a show." Iranian state TV accused British leaders of "dictating" the crew's statements.
Appearing a day after being flown home to reunions with their families, the eight sailors and seven marines reported undergoing constant psychological pressure and being threatened with seven years in prison if they did not say they intruded into Iranian waters.
They said their captors also lined them up against a wall one night to the ominous sound of weapons cocking behind their heads.
"At some points I did have fears that we would not survive," Operator Maintainer Arthur Batchelor, 20, the youngest sailor among the captives, told The Associated Press in an interview.
Speaking at the news conference with five colleagues, the boat team's commander, Royal Navy Lt. Felix Carman, said the prisoners were harshly interrogated during 13 days in custody and slept in stone cells on piles of blankets. "All of us were kept in isolation. We were interrogated most nights and presented with two options: If we admitted that we'd strayed, we'd be on a plane to (Britain) pretty soon. If we didn't, we faced up to seven years in prison," he said.
Carman, who was one of the captives who appeared in Iranian videos seeming to admit being in Iran's waters, disavowed his earlier comment.
"Let me make this clear &
irrespective of what was said in the past &
when we were detained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard we were inside internationally recognized Iraqi territorial waters," he said.
Royal Marine Joe Tindell said he came to believe one of his colleagues had been executed on the second day of their ordeal.
The 21-year-old said the crew had believed they were being taken to the British Embassy in Tehran to be released, but were instead dumped in a holding facility.
"We had a blindfold and plastic cuffs, hands behind our backs, heads against the wall. ... There were weapons cocking," Tindell told British Broadcasting Corp. radio. "Someone said, I quote: 'Lads, lads, I think we're going to get executed.' ... Someone was sick and as far as I was concerned he had just had his throat cut."
Royal Marine Capt. Chris Air said the crew, operating in two inflatable boats in the Persian Gulf on March 23 checking vessels for smuggled goods, was confronted by two Revolutionary Guard boats.
"They rammed our boats and trained their heavy machine guns, RPGs and weapons on us. Another six boats were closing in on us," Air said.
He said the team quickly decided that a gunbattle would risk a major escalation of tensions with Iran and that they were too lightly armed to resist anyway.
"From the outset it was very apparent that fighting back was simply not an option," Air said. "Had we chosen to do so, then many of us would not be standing here today. Of that I have no doubts."
Britain's top naval officer said boarding operations would be suspended while a review is conducted.
"Coalition operations continue under U.K. command," said Adm. Jonathon Band, head of the Royal Navy. "Currently, our (operations) have been suspended while we do that review."
While much of Britain rallied behind the returning crew, some critics complained about the prisoners appearing in videos in which they appeared to admit entering Iranian waters and offered regrets.
Military commanders have stood behind the crew. They didn't break rules by complying with the Iranian demands, the head of the Royal Navy, Adm. Jonathon Band, told the BBC. "I think, in the end, they were a credit to us," he said.
The most visible of the seized sailors during their captivity was Leading Seaman Faye Turney, a 26-year-old mother of a young girl and the first crew member to be interviewed on Iranian television. Turney did not attend the news conference.
It's not possible to know everything the sailors and marines said to their captors but at least some statements avoided saying definitely they were in Iran's waters.
For example, in one of the letters made public from Turney, she said she had "apparently gone into Iranian waters." In a video clip from Iranian TV, Air said "we were seized apparently at this point here on their maps and on the GPS they've shown us, which is inside Iranian territorial waters."
Air said Turney was singled out by the Iranians, who put her in solitary confinement and told her all the men had been released. "She was under the impression for about four days that she was the only one there," he told reporters.
In an interview with AP, Air said there were a "few incidents when our safety was at risk," citing occasions when the sailors were held separately, making them more vulnerable.
He said the crew faced a difficult task when complying with their captors' requests for them to admit publicly they were in Iranian territory &
a fact they knew to be untrue. "We were very careful about what we said and what we didn't say," he told AP.
Prime Minister Tony Blair's office refused to comment on the crew's description of their treatment in Iran, but the White House said the reports of ill-treatment were disappointing.
"If what they described is accurate, then that would not seem to be appropriate behavior and action," White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said. "It's unfortunate that the Iranians ever detained the sailors to begin with."
Iran's state television showed parts of the news conference, but with no sound. Without revealing their specific comments, a newscaster said the Britons "retreated from their confessions," while an unidentified analyst charged their statements were "dictated" by British officials.
Mohammad Ali Hosseini, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, also criticized the British statements, the TV report said. "Propaganda actions and shows can't cover up actions by the British military men and their repeated violation in illegal entry into Iran's territorial waters," he said.
Earlier, during Friday sermons at mosques around Iran, government clerics touted the end of the standoff with Britain as a victory for Iran.
Some told worshippers the British government apologized for the crews' entry into Iranian waters. The British government says it never apologized, and even Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad acknowledged before the crew's release that Britain stuck to its stance that the crew was seized in Iraqi waters.
Associated Press writers Ali Akbar Dareini in Tehran and Jennifer Quinn, David Stringer and Danica Kirka in London contributed to this report.