Thursday, February 19, 2009

Polish soldiers go on trial for Afghan killings

Seven Polish soldiers went on trial at a military court yesterday charged with the killing of a group of civilians during a tour of duty in Afghanistan two years ago, prosecutors said.

Six of the soldiers, who were serving as members of NATO’s international security assistance force (ISAF), are facing possible life sentences if found guilty by the military tribunal sitting in the capital Warsaw.

After the group pleaded not guilty, prosecutors told the court that six civilians, including women and children, were killed and three were seriously injured after the Polish troops opened mortar and machine gun fire in the village of Nangar Khel in the country’s mountainous south-east.

“One person is accused of opening fire on a civilian area, while the remaining six are charged with opening fire on a civilian area, murder of civilians and causing grievous bodily harm to civilians,” military prosecutor Colonel Jakub Mytych said.

The soldiers maintain that they opened fire in response to an attack by a Taliban militia and claim the deaths resulted from faulty mortar equipment.

But military prosecutors say the deaths occurred several hours after the Poles had responded to an attack on a separate ISAF patrol. Mytych said all but one of the accused are facing maximum life sentences in prison in found guilty as charged. A court spokesman said that the group were the first Polish soldiers to be tried with breaking an international convention on protecting civilians.

“This is the first trial in the history of the Polish army for an alleged violation of the 1907 Hague Fourth Convention on the Laws and Customs of War on Land and the Fourth 1949 Geneva Convention on the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War,” court spokesman Rafal Korkus said. Poland currently has 1,600 troops in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, a Polish court yesterday overturned the indecent exposure conviction of two women, including a model who has appeared in men’s magazines, who had sunbathed topless, a rarity in this deeply Catholic country.

The court in the nothwestern city of Szczecin threw out a ruling by a lower level tribunal which in November had issued a legal reprimand to the women, aged 26 and 28, ordering them to pay costs.The Szczecin court said the November ruling was wrongheaded because the women’s toplessness had caused “neither scandal nor indignation”.