Defense Minister Jung has been insisting that the desecrations were isolated casesImage: AP
DW staff / AFP / DPA (win)
October 27, 2006
German defense ministry officials Friday suspended two soldiers for their alleged part in the desecration of skulls in Afghanistan. The scandal meanwhile widened as a tabloid said it would publish more photos Saturday.
Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung said that the two men "will no longer be a part of the German army." Four others, who had also been identified as having participated in taking the photographs, have since left the Bundeswehr.
German private TV channel RTL on Thursday night showed pictures of a soldier kissing a skull that was lying on his shoulder and of another posing with a skull mounted on his patrol vehicle. In a third photograph, several skulls are piled on top of each to form a pyramid.
RTL officials said the pictures were taken with a digital camera and dated from March 2004, making them roughly a year younger than the photographs of soldiers and skulls published in Germany's Bild tabloid on Wednesday. They show soldiers posing with a skull mounted on a patrol vehicle bearing the German flag and the acronym ISAF. In one picture, a soldier in a camouflage uniform holds the skull next to his exposed penis.
Bild editors said they would publish further images Saturday. The images reportedly show a mock execution of a skeleton assembled from various human remains.
The chief of staff of the Bundeswehr, Wolfgang Schneiderhan, denied suggestions that the fact that a second set of pictures has come to light proved that such behavior was widespread among German troops.
"It is another isolated case," Schneiderhan told RTL, but vowed that the soldiers involved would face a "merciless" inquiry. State prosecutors have said they could face charges of disturbing the peace of the dead, which carries a prison sentence of up to three years.
Cemetery or pit?
The Bundeswehr said it appeared that the soldiers had found the skulls in a cemetery south of Kabul. But in an interview with Bild, one of the soldiers involved in the incident said that soldiers found the bones during a patrol near a pit outside Kabul.
"It was where the Afghans dug up the clay they needed to make bricks," the unidentified soldier said. "All these bones came out in the process. It was not a cemetery, not a place of worship."
He said he was not forced to participate, but that people who refused to do so would have been called "wimps."
Low inhibition threshold
The man said that he should not have participated in the incident, but added that he and his comrades were tense at the time.
"It's hard on the nerves when you're constantly confronted with people from your own army or the allies getting hurt or die," he said. "I think that the inhibition threshold was low because of this.
According to news reports, the location was well-known among soldiers stationed in Afghanistan, who repeatedly came there to take photographs. German opposition Green party politician Hans-Christian Ströbele said he had been told by at least half-a-dozen soldiers that there were hundreds of such photos in existence.
German politicians and military officials have meanwhile called for a review of the Bundeswehr's training program to make sure that soldiers are well prepared for their missions. Defense Minister Jung said a team of specialists would be traveling to Afghanistan to assess conditions there. He added that the Bundeswehr would also review its training methods.
Afghan government condemns actions
The Afghan government meanwhile on Friday "strongly condemned" Friday the actions of German soldiers seen in photographs playing with human skulls in Afghanistan and said their acts were against Islamic values.
The government called on "German authorities to investigate the matter, bring the perpetrators to justice and ensure such actions are not repeated," the statement said.
There has been little attention to the scandal in the Afghan media, with most newspapers suspending publication over the Eid holidays.
Insults to Islam have sparked fierce reaction in conservative Afghanistan. An incident in which US soldiers in Islamic Afghanistan were captured on film burning the bodies of men said to be Taliban fighters late last year caused outrage as it was disrespectful of the dead and against the tenets of Islam.
Last year, the publication of Danish cartoons deemed insulting of the Prophet Mohammad caused days of rioting across the country that left 11 people dead.