Iran General NewsBritons say they feared for lives in Iran captivity

Britons say they feared for lives in Iran captivity


New York Times: Their greatest scare, they recalled, came on the second day, when they were flown to Tehran, blindfolded and backed up against a prison wall while their Iranian captors fiddled with weapons, cocking rifles and making them fear for their lives.

The New York Times

Published: April 7, 2007

LONDON, April 6 — Their greatest scare, they recalled, came on the second day, when they were flown to Tehran, blindfolded and backed up against a prison wall while their Iranian captors fiddled with weapons, cocking rifles and making them fear for their lives.

“We thought we were going to the British Embassy but we got taken to a detention center,” said Royal Marine Joe Tindell, 21, one of 15 British sailors and marines seized by Iranian Revolutionary Guards in disputed waters in the Persian Gulf on March 23.

At the detention center, the mood turned drastically, as their captors changed from military dress into all black, their faces covered.

“We had a blindfold and plastic cuffs, hands behind our backs, heads against the wall,” Royal Marine Tindell said in an interview with the BBC. “Someone, I’m not sure who, someone said, I quote, ‘Lads, lads, I think we’re going to get executed.’

“After that comment someone was sick, and as far as I was concerned he had just had his throat cut. From there we were rushed to a room, quick photo, and then stuffed into a cell and didn’t see or speak to anyone for six days.”

It was the beginning of days of psychological pressure that would ultimately extract televised “confessions” from some of the Britons that they had strayed into Iranian waters. The admissions tempered for some the joy at their safe return home to their families, with some military analysts expressing dismay that the sailors and marines had capitulated to their captors’ demands.

“It was highly damaging that all of them apologized publicly for something they had not done,” said Sir Max Hastings, a military historian and former newspaper editor, in a BBC radio interview on Friday, comparing the Britons unfavorably to American pilots who withstood much crueler treatment in North Vietnam for much longer.

But the captives defended their decision to play along with their captors, saying they were subjected to a determined campaign of psychological intimidation. They were separated, stripped, put in pajamas and placed in small stone cells in complete isolation — not permitted even a whispered word with a fellow captive, they said. The lone woman among them was tricked into believing the men had all been released.

“There was a lot of trickery, and mind games being played,” Lt. Felix Carman, 26, of the Royal Navy, said when six of the Britons, freed two days ago, appeared at a news conference on Friday to chronicle for the first time in public a 14-day ordeal that began, by their account, when Iranian Revolutionary Guards apprehended them in Iraqi waters, executing what seemed a planned and heavily armed ambush.

“We were interrogated most nights, and presented with two options,” Lieutenant Carman 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.”

None of them was told that, in the world outside, their incarceration had become a test of British and Iranian wills in which Iran depicted itself as a magnanimous victor — President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Thursday called their release a “gift” to Britain.

The news conference at a Royal Marines base at Chivenor, southwestern England, seemed intended as much to deny Iran’s depiction of the episode as to allow the sailors and marines a chance to recant what Iran called their confessions of guilt.

Yet, just as Britain had called their televised “confessions” stage-managed, the Iranian authorities dismissed Friday’s news conference as a propaganda exercise that did nothing to exonerate the British forces.

“Transferring the sailors to military bases immediately after their arrival, dictating to them their orders and the planned coverage of the press conference by British and American media cannot change the documents that show the sailors had entered the territory of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, Mohammad Ali Hosseini, said in a statement.

But Iran received its share of criticism at home, as well. The reformist daily newspaper Etemad faulted the government for not milking the crisis for greater diplomatic advantage, particularly by using it to gain the release of Iranians held in Iraq. “Maybe Iran could get some advantages during the talks and end its complicated problems with the other side,” a column in Thursday’s paper said.

Another reformist newspaper, Aftab-e-Yazd, criticized the government’s timing, saying that if it was planning to release the Britons, it should have done so earlier instead of immediately after a warning from Prime Minister Tony Blair.

The haste with which British authorities arranged the news conference suggested that they wanted to deny Iran the propaganda victory it garnered from releasing the British personnel, who indeed affirmed that they had been in Iraqi, not Iranian waters. “I can clearly state that we were 1.7 nautical miles from Iranian waters,” Lieutenant Carman said.

Reading from a written statement, Lieutenant Carman and Royal Marine Capt. Chris Air, 25, described how two Iranian speedboats closed on two British inflatable patrol boats after the personnel had boarded an Indian-flagged vessel, seeking contraband. Theirs was the first direct explanation of why the Britons did not resist capture.

“Some of the Iranian sailors were becoming deliberately aggressive and unstable,” Captain Air said. “They rammed our boat and trained their heavy machine guns, R.P.G.’s and weapons on us. Another six boats were closing in on us,” he said, referring to rocket-propelled grenades by their initials.

“We realized that our efforts to reason with these people were not making any headway. Nor were we able to calm some of the individuals down.

“It was at this point that 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. We made a conscious decision to not engage the Iranians and do as they asked. They boarded our boats, removed our weapons and steered the boats towards the Iranian shore.”

“Let me be absolutely clear,” Captain Air said. “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. Of that I have no doubts.”

On Friday, the Royal Navy supported the decision not to fight. “I would not agree at all that it was not our finest hour,” Adm. Sir Jonathon Band, Britain’s most senior naval officer, told the BBC on Friday. “I think our people have reacted extremely well in some very difficult circumstances.”

At the news conference, Lieutenant Carman, reading from the same prepared statement as Captain Air, took up the story of their detention.

The group, he said, had first been taken to a small naval base where they were blindfolded, stripped of their military gear and uniforms, and “led to a room where I declared myself as the officer in charge and was introduced to a local commander.

Two hours later we were moved to a second location and throughout the night were subjected to random interrogations. The questions were aggressive and the handling rough, but it was no worse than that.”

Iranian television showed the Britons seemingly relaxing together, but Lieutenant Carman said these images were made only in the final days of their captivity when they were allowed “to gather for a few hours together, in the full glare of Iranian media.”

“On Day 12 we were taken to a governmental complex, blindfolded and then given three-piece suits to wear,” Lieutenant Carman said. It was only when they watched a news conference in Tehran the next day, a Wednesday, when Mr. Ahmadinejad announced they would be freed, that they realized they would finally be sent home unharmed, he said.

Nazila Fathi contributed reporting from Tehran.

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