British Sailors Recount Captivity in Iran

Some of the 15 British sailors and marines freed after nearly two weeks captivity in Iran speak publicly about their experiences and their statements about allegedly entering Iranian waters.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The British sailors and marines who were held for nearly two weeks in Iran spoke to the press and the public today. They revealed what many people had suspected, that there was much more to their captivity than the smiling, relaxed faces that had appeared on Iranian television.

But the group also had to answer some difficult questions, as NPR's Rob Gifford reports from London.

ROB GIFFORD: The media have been kept away from the 15 sailors and marines since they arrived back yesterday. But the British military, aware of the intense public interest, set up a news conference to seven of those detained in Iran.

A carefully prepared statement, approved by all 15, was read out by the two senior officers of the group. First of all, Lieutenant Felix Carman of the Royal Navy asserted what the British government has maintained all along.

Lieutenant FELIX CARMAN (British Royal Navy): Let me make it absolutely clear. Irrespective of what's been said in the past, when we were detained by the IRG, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, we were inside internationally recognized Iraqi territorial waters. And I can clearly state, we were 1.7 nautical miles from Iranian waters.

GIFFORD: Carman's colleague, Royal Marines Captain Chris Air then described how they were captured as they boarded and searched the merchant vessel in the Persian Gulf, as they have done dozens of times before.

He said the Iranian Revolutionary Guard became aggressive as they surrounded the Royal Navy boats, and he realized he had to make a split-second decision whether to resist being detained.

Captain CHRIS AIR (British Royal Marines): 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. The Iranian navy did not turn up lightly armed. They came with intent, heavy weapons, and very quickly surrounded us.

GIFFORD: They were captured and taken ashore, and from the start they said the questioning was aggressive and the handling rough. The Royal Navy crew was moved to Tehran and kept for most of the time in isolation from each other in stone cells just eight by six feet in size. They were interrogated most evenings.

Lieutenant Felix Carman said they were subjected to psychological pressures from their Iranian captives.

Lt. CARMAN: The isolation was a major part of it, and a complete suffocation in terms of information from the outside world. None of the guards spoke English. We were blindfolded at all times and kept in isolation from each other. Also when we first went to the prison, we were put up against the wall, hands bound, blindfolded, and there people who were talking weapons in the background.

GIFFORD: Carman stressed that he didn't believe this amounted to a mock execution. The sailors and marines did say that for the confessions they were forced to make on Iranian television, they tried to use words like, apparently, so as not to admit to crossing into Iranian waters, though, some clips shown around the world suggest this was not always the case.

However, Senior British military officials have been completely supportive of the way the captives handled their detention, acknowledging the pressure they were under when being filmed. Amid criticism about how easily the sailors and marines were seized, Britain has suspended boarding operations in the Persian Gulf and is reviewing rules of engagement in the area.

Dom Mee is a former Royal Marine and now a military analyst.

Mr. DOM MEE (Former Royal Marine; Military Analyst): I think that we just have to make sure this never happens again. I mean, that is the most key thing, whether we need to change our - the operational structure or equipment. They're going to have to beef up the whole operational procedure. Whether it's the government need to sort of, listen to the military commanders, and provide the equivalent of military commanders. We need really just close this loophole up and review the whole policy.

GIFFORD: The White House today denounced Iran's treatment of the British crew. A statement by the Iranian Foreign Ministry called the British news conference theatrical propaganda and dismissed the statements of the British personnel. Rob Gifford, NPR News, London.

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