The German armed forces are reeling from allegations that several low-ranking officers mistreated Bundeswehr recruits during basic training using methods possibly modelled on US torture in Abu Ghraib, Iraq.
No one is talking at the Freiherr vom Stein base near Coesfeld
The head of the German Bundeswehr association, Bernhard Gertz, said on Tuesday that five non-commissioned officers were being investigated by the state prosecutor's office in Münster for their actions this summer at an army base near the northwestern town of Coesfeld.
He said troops had been tortured with electrical shocks, had their noses held shut and water poured down their throats, citing members of the unit charged with the training the soldiers.
"This incident is extremely upsetting because it soils the image of the Bundeswehr," he told the Berliner Zeitung newspaper. Gertz and other armed forces officials consider the problem to be of an isolated nature.
Prosecutors said that as many as 21 soldiers, mostly non-commissioned officers of sergeant rank, and at least one captain were involved in the episode. The German newsmagazine Der Spiegel reported in this week's edition that the sergeants would pretend to be Arab terrorists that took the recruits as hostages in order to submit them to physical and psychological mistreatment.
According to a report in the Bild newspaper, a 26-year-old non-commissioned officer has admitted to mistreating recruits with electric shocks.
"He very much regrets what he did," the soldier's lawyer told the paper.
Inspired by Iraq ?
The first incident reportedly took place in June, at the same time that shocking pictures of torture of Iraqi prisoners by US soldiers went around the world. Whether the soldiers responsible for the mistreatment were inspired by the events at the Abu Ghraib prison is uncertain. However, they did allegedly use similar methods, including hooding their victims, stripping them and photographing them.
German Defense Minister Peter Struck confirmed earlier this week that an investigation was underway. However, he refused use the word "torture" in conjunction with the affair.
"It is absolutely plain that the trainers responsible seriously overstepped their role. This cannot be tolerated and we have taken steps against it," he said. "All those responsible will be brought to account."
Struck will face questions from the parliamentary defense committee on Wednesday. Until then, the Defense Ministry is refusing to comment on the matter.
The latest scandal comes only months after Struck was embarrassed by an instructor at an officer training school who had defended torture as a legitimate instrument in the war on terror. Military historian Michael Wolffsohn said in May that although he did not condone the treatment at the Abu Ghraib prison, "torture, or the threat of torture, is legitimate as one of the instruments against terror, because terror basically…has nothing to do with our civilized order."
"A German soldier tortures no one," Struck said at the time in response.
Beyond the shock and disbelief surrounding the allegations of mistreatment, some are questioning why it took so long for the incident to come to light, especially since an estimated 80 conscripts were involved between June and September.
Helmuth Prieß, a spokesman for a military watchdog group for soldiers, said there is systematic "threat and pressure" in the Bundeswehr that keeps troops from speaking out after such mistreatment. "There's a system where soldiers just keep their heads down and usually keep their mouths shut," Prieß told the DPA news agency on Tuesday.
He also said the events at Coesfeld were unlikely to be an isolated incident. "It's just the tip of a not very hard to see iceberg," he said.