By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 7, 2007
LONDON, April 6 -- Early during their two-week detention in Iran, a group of British sailors and marines were blindfolded, hands cuffed behind their backs, and lined up facing a wall in a prison in Tehran. Behind them, they recalled, Iranian guards cocked their guns.
Held in isolation by guards who spoke no English, barred from talking to one another, and so bereft of information that they thought perhaps no one knew they were missing, "Some of us feared the worst," said Royal Marine Capt. Chris Air, 25.
" 'Lads, lads, I think we're going to get executed,' " a voice said in the darkness, recalled one of the marines, Joe Tindell. After that, someone got sick, "and as far as I was concerned, he had just had his throat cut."
In fact, it was a bit of psychological intimidation, six members of the crew said Friday at a news conference, the first time they have spoken publicly about their March 23 capture by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and their time in captivity, which ended with their surprise release on Thursday. They spent long periods blindfolded and in isolation, and they were threatened with up to seven years in prison if they did not admit to invading Iranian waters, said Royal Navy Lt. Felix Carman.
Air, the senior officer in the group, said the lone woman, Faye Turney, 26, was separated from the crew and singled out for particularly stressful treatment, including being told that the other members of the group had been released and sent home days earlier.
Some newspapers and Britons have questioned why the crew members appeared so relaxed in pictures aired on Iranian television, and why they seemed to confess so readily to trespassing in Iranian waters. Military analysts have wondered why the service members allowed themselves to be captured without a fight and whether the 15 sailors and marines truly were in Iraqi waters, as Britain has steadfastly maintained.
Some of the answers emerged Friday during the 30-minute news conference at Royal Marines Barracks Chivenor, about 175 miles southwest of London in Devon. The explanations came as the British Defense Ministry announced that British sailors had stopped boarding vessels and conducting inspections in the Persian Gulf pending a wide-ranging investigation of the March 23 incident.
The crew members insisted that they were in Iraqi waters when apprehended, that they were surrounded by Iranian speedboats and had no time to react, and that they were simply outgunned.
When confronted by the Iranians, "I explained we were conducting a routine operation, as allowed under a U.N. mandate, but when we tried to leave, they prevented us by blocking us in," Air explained in a prepared opening statement. "Some of the Iranian sailors were becoming deliberately aggressive and unstable. They rammed our boats and trained their heavy machine guns, RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] and weapons on us.
"Another six boats were closing in on us. 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 which we could not have won and with consequences that would have had major strategic impacts."
"Our team had seconds to make a decision, and we believe we made the right decision," he said.
Although a British helicopter initially had provided air cover for the boarding operation, for some unknown reason it had left, Air said.
Their two inflatable boats were commandeered and taken to a local Iranian naval base, where they spent the night before being transferred to a prison in Tehran the next morning. There, they were subjected to "constant psychological pressure," said Carman, who also made opening remarks from a statement.
Crew members hardly ever saw one another, contrary to the impression left by Iranian television shots of them eating together, playing chess and drinking tea in informal settings. Letters and televised shots of members admitting to trespassing in Iranian waters were coerced, Carman said.
"We were interrogated most nights and presented with two options: If we admitted that we'd strayed, we'd be back on a plane to the U.K. pretty soon. If we didn't, we faced up to seven years in prison," he said. "We all at one time or another made a conscious decision to make a controlled release of nonoperational information. We were kept in isolation until the last few nights, when we were allowed to get together for a few hours, in the full glare of the Iranian media. . . . But that was very much a setup, very much a stunt for Iranian propaganda."
Carman said they jointly watched the news conference in which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that they would be released as an Easter "present to the British people."
"We were made to then line up and meet the president, one at a time. My advice to everyone was not to mess this up now -- we all wanted to get home."
Some Britons have questioned the behavior of the 15 service personnel during their detention, but senior British military officials said the 15 acted appropriately.
"They appear to have played it by the rules," the chief of Naval Staff, Adm. Jonathon Band, told BBC radio on Friday. "They don't appear to have put themselves into danger, others into danger, they don't appear to have given anything away. And indeed I think, at the end, they were a credit to us."
Looking and sounding angry, Air said the group had been "exploited." Tindell, 21, described the entire two-week affair as "a complete media stunt" by Ahmadinejad.
Carman said that Turney, whose interviews and letters apologizing to the Iranian people were widely aired in Iran and around the world, in particular paid a high price.
"The fact that she is a woman has been used as a propaganda tool by Iran. This is deeply regrettable," he said.
Early in the ordeal, she was told that the others had been released, and for about four days she thought she was the only sailor still being detained, Air said. "Clearly, she was subjected to quite a lot of stress. . . . She coped admirably and retained a lot of dignity."
Special correspondent Karla Adam contributed to this report.