War crimes, lies and a videotape

He regrets not speaking up when he first realised Danish soldiers had let innocent Iraqis be abused. But when Anders Koustrup Kærgaard eventually did, he had to start a new life far from the military, which had defined him and his family for generations

“It’s virtually impossible to find a job when you’re a whistleblower. It’s the culture in Danish industry, where 100 percent loyalty is demanded. But I am intensely loyal to the army – I just knew that releasing the video was the more honourable thing to do.”

Anders Koustrup Kærgaard recollects his decision to become a whistleblower over a crackly phone line from Jutland. In 2012, the captain and former intelligence analyst released a video proving that Danish soldiers didn’t intervene to protect civilians from abuse at the hands of Iraqi security forces eight years earlier. Why did it take him so long to release the evidence proving the Danish military broke the Geneva Conventions? He never believed there would be a cover-up.

“I had blind faith in my commanding officers, and thought they would do the right thing and tell the truth. It took me a long time to realise that everyone, from the military to the ministers, were prepared to keep lying.”

In September of this year, Denmark decided to back the US, throwing its fighter jets into the campaign against the Islamic State. With Denmark returning to the region, Kærgaard warns that the military remains opaque and capable of covering up crimes similar to the one he helped expose. He also fears that we haven’t thought through the consequences of another intervention.

“We have barely finished a decade of war, but we still take no responsibility for the many refugees and wounded service members. We shouldn’t go to war until we’ve learned how to fix the last situation, but there is no political will.”

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A damaged Man
His time in Iraq has taken a toll. Several close calls with roadside bombs and driveby shootings contributed to him developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). When he returned he felt the need to dial up his life in order to feel alive – driving too fast and working too hard. Ultimately it cost him his marriage.

“It’s hard to live with someone who needs to live a fast-paced life. I have colleagues with PTSD who turned to extreme sports like base jumping, but I directed it toward my working life. I’ve been trying to manage, but it’s difficult. My life became extreme – fight or flight – with nothing inbetween.”

Kærgaard grew up with a grandfather who had fought in the resistance movement against the Nazi occupation. He remembers listening to his tales of subterfuge and being taught the value of the Danish military. His father was a reconaissance officer, and Kærgaard followed in his footsteps after high school – his systematic mind was attuned to gathering and analysing technical data in search of patterns.

“I completely bought into the idea that Saddam Hussein was a bad man and had weapons of mass destruction,” says Kærgaard, who worked in military intelligence for 15 years before signing up for the Iraq mission in 2003.

“No matter what the counter argument might have been, I would still have joined. I was duty bound to go. I didn’t question what the politicians said.”

He landed in Iraq in August 2004, thinking the mission was to stabilise the country following the US-led invasion. He soon noticed something suspicious: the intelligence Kærgaard was collecting didn’t match what the Iraqi forces were reporting.

The following November, the Danish army led Operation Green Desert, in which 1,000 Danish, British and Iraqi forces descended on the town of Al Zubair. The Iraqi forces claimed the town was harbouring terrorists, but this contradicted Kærgaard’s own intelligence, which showed no evidence for the allegations.

“The Green Desert intelligence we received was rubbish, and I said so. But we went ahead with the mission because we needed to be on good terms with the Iraqi forces. It was obvious, though, that we were being used in a sectarian operation to target Sunnis, whom the Shia security forces found unfavourable. We were told they were terrorists – and they might have been small-time criminals – but they certainly weren’t what we were told they were.”

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Proof of abuse
When the troops returned to their base, Kærgaard watched footage showing the Iraqi forces kicking and beating civilians in Al Zubair while the Danish forces looked on. Soon after, the Iraqi newspaper Al Manarah reported the allegations, which the Danish Ministry of Defence dismissed.

It was later proven that 36 civilians were arrested by the Iraqi forces and subjected to mistreatment and torture for approximately 70 days.

The Geneva Conventions require that soldiers intervene or report prisoner abuse when they witness it, and Kærgaard claims he took the video to his battalion leader, colonel John Dalby, the same day he watched it. But Kærgaard says Dalby urged him to bury it.

Kærgaard kept the video and, over the years, continued to speak about the incident. The military refused to investigate, but the mission was always at the back of his mind.

“If I had released the video then, we could have stopped the next 70 days of torture.”

In 2011, eleven Iraqis sued the Ministry of Defence for allowing the abuse to take place.

Kærgaard followed the case in the media, and watched as the Ministry of Defence and colonel Dalby repeatedly denied that there was any evidence to support the allegations. In his home, he had the video that proved the military was lying. It was after the Military High Command brushed him off again, refusing to follow up on his claims, that he realised that they were never going to come clean.

In October 2012, he finally released the video, which sent shockwaves through the national media. The footage clearly proved that the Iraqis’ allegations were true, and that the authorities had lied. 

In the video, five or six Iraqi police officers surround a group of civilians who are seated on the floor. A policeman raises his foot and kicks one in the head (19:27 in the video below). A Danish soldier in the foreground watches on, then turns toward the camera.

Everyone, from colonel Dalby to the Chief of Defence, Peter Bartram, denied there was any video footage of the incident, but several other soldiers are clearly seen carrying or wearing cameras (20:44). And despite the new evidence, the Iraqis still have not received compensation. Their cases have been dismissed by the Eastern High Court both because the statute of limitations has expired, and because the Iraqis have insufficient resources to take the case to trial. An appeal is waiting to be heard by the Supreme Court.

As for Kærgaard, being a whistleblower was not without its consequences. In 2013, he was taken to court by the Military Prosecution Service, which was investigating Dalby for dereliction of duty. When Kærgaard refused to reveal who had given him the video, he was fined 13,000 kroner. The judge chose not to jail him, however, and a crowdfunding campaign by supporters raised the money to pay the fine.

Kærgaard is convinced it was the military’s way of sending a message to other potential whistleblowers.

“They wanted to send a signal that if you step outside the lines and work against the system, you’ll be jailed and have your life destroyed.”

The prosecutor dropped the case against Dalby in January, citing Kærgaard’s refusal to name his source. But Kærgaard argues that the military prosecutor is an inherently undemocratic institution, lacking both transparency and incentive to uncover corruption.

“The police and military are tasked with investigating themselves, so they have little incentive to uncover abuse of power amongst their own personnel. They’re assisted by governments that make political trade-offs with each other: if the current government doesn’t investigate the last, then the next government will also be left alone. But they shouldn’t be making these trade-offs. These cases should be going to court in the interest of democracy.”

Kærgaard’s video was particularly shocking precisely because so many levels of power denied that the evidence existed. He is certain that the news must have gone all the way to the top, where the order for a cover-up must have been given. But that is mere speculation, and unless Denmark introduces an independent auditor’s office to investigate corruption in the military and civil services, Kærgaard argues, cases like these will never be resolved.

“Corruption is widespread. I know of a few other cases, which I can’t prove, but that is why we need the new court. My case isn’t a one-off.”

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Return to Iraq
Denmark recently pledged its F-16 in the international fight against IS in Iraq and Syria. While no ground forces have yet to be pledged, Kærgaard is concerned that we haven’t learned from our mistakes in past conflicts in the region. The military action against Afghanistan didn’t destroy the Taleban, who recently agreed a negotiated peace with the government.

The same strategy needs to be applied to IS who ought to be involved in a democratic process through political negotiations.

“I have no sympathy for IS. They are cruel and we should do whatever we can to destroy them, but we can’t bomb them back to the stone age. We should return to Denmark’s activistic foreign policy during the Cold War, when we helped facilitate negotiation and dialogue. But this has now been forgotten, and all we seem concerned with is sending weapons and soldiers. We have forgotten how to deal with phase two and three – cleaning up, and learning lessons. ”

Kærgaard’s concerns are directed at the people who have been displaced and affected by the international intervention in Iraq. 280 Iraqis were evacuated to Denmark, mostly interpreters and their families, following the last intervention. 67 have since returned to Iraq, among other reasons because they found living in Denmark as Muslim refugees a degrading experience.

But now with the rise of IS, they are under threat again, and Kærgaard is trying to help them return to Denmark. Few politicians have listened to his plea, however, and he is currently trying to secure residence permits, as well as raise funds to make a documentary about their experiences.

Kærgaard currently lives in Horsens with a new girlfriend who has helped him adjust to his new life. He no longer misses being in the army, and he has found a new purpose in his work.

“Iraq has become my destiny. When I returned I wanted to put Iraq behind me, but somehow it keeps me pulling me back.” M


By Peter Stanners

Co-founder and Editor-in-chief. Occasional photographer.

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