Britain Now Says Captives Can’t Sell Their Stories

April 10, 2007

Britain Now Says Captives Can’t Sell Their Stories

LONDON, April 9 — After howls of protest from former military commanders, opposition politicians and relatives of service members who had been killed, Britain’s defense secretary, Des Browne, on Monday abruptly reversed a decision to allow some of the sailors and marines captured by Iran to sell their stories to the media.

The ban came too late to prevent 2 of the 15 captives, released last week after 14 days, from recounting their experiences in return for payment.

One of them, Leading Seaman Faye Turney, 25, the only woman in the group, said she had been stripped to her underwear, thrown into a tiny cell and had been given the impression that she was being measured for her coffin. She was also asked whether she wanted to see her 3-year-old daughter again.

Another sailor, Arthur Batchelor, 20, the youngest in the group, said he cried himself to sleep after one of the guards “kept flicking my neck with his index finger and thumb,” making him think of video-recorded executions of hostages in Iraq. His captors mocked him for his youthful looks, calling him “Mr. Bean” after a comedy character played by the British actor Rowan Atkinson.

The decision to allow the sailors and marines to sell their stories elicited avowals of distaste among many people, including Kelvin MacKenzie, a former editor of the tabloid newspaper The Sun, who called it a “catastrophic error.” The Sun and The Daily Mirror paid for the two captives’ stories.

Michael Heseltine, a former defense minister for the opposition Conservatives, told the BBC, “I have never heard anything so appalling.”

As the debate built to a fever pitch, Mr. Browne, the defense secretary, said the Royal Navy had faced “a tough call” in permitting its captured personnel to accept payments.

“I want to be sure those charged with these difficult decisions have clear guidance for the future,” he said in a statement. “Until that time no further service personnel will be allowed to talk to the media about their experiences in return for payment.

“Many strong views on this have been expressed, but I hope people will understand that this was a very tough call, and that the navy had a duty to support its people. Nevertheless, all of us who have been involved over the last few days recognize we have not reached a satisfactory outcome.”

The Sun and The Daily Mirror did not specify how much they paid. Seaman Turney reportedly turned down an offer of around $200,000 for her story and accepted a lower combined offer from The Sun and the ITV television network. Part of the money, she said, will be donated to a charity for her fellow service members aboard the frigate Cornwall.

In the Sun account, she was quoted as saying: “One morning I heard the noise of wood sawing and nails being hammered near my cell. I couldn’t work out what it was. Then a woman came into my cell to measure me up from head to toe. She shouted the measurements to a man outside. I was convinced they were making my coffin.”

The 15 Britons are at the center of a propaganda contest with Iran, which has broadcast video showing them smiling, playing table tennis and eating together to rebut their insistence that they were held in solitary confinement or blindfolded.

Seaman Turney said she had been separated from the other 14 and told they had been released. “That was my lowest moment,” she said. “All I could think was how completely alone I was. They could do anything now and no one would know.” Her cell measured 6 feet by 5 feet 8 inches, and she counted the 135 bricks in the wall and the 266 circles in the air vents to while away the time between nocturnal interrogation sessions, The Sun reported.

Seaman Turney was the first of the captives depicted on Iranian television making what her captors described as confessions. But she said she refused to divulge operational details about the Royal Navy deployment in the Persian Gulf. “I told them: ‘How do I know? I’m just the bloody boat driver,’ ” she said. “I tried to play the dumb blonde.”

On the fifth day of her imprisonment, two new interrogators told her she could be free in two weeks if she agreed to write letters saying she had been in Iranian waters. “If I didn’t, they’d put me in jail for espionage and I’d go to jail for several years,” she said.

Some newspaper columnists and retired military officers have criticized the 15 captives for agreeing too easily to Iranian demands for confessions.

“I decided to take that chance and write in such a way that my unit and my family would know it wasn’t the real me,” Seaman Turney said.

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