by Judy Kerr, The Big Issue (UK), 26 May - 2 June 2003

What happens when UK soldiers refuse to fight? They get Locked up, harassed and lied to. Armed services' help-group At Ease opened their confidential case files for the first time exclusively for The Big Issue's Judy Kerr.

In a barracks in Colchester, two British soldiers, who were sent home on the eve of invasion into Iraq for refusing to fight, wait every day for the phonecall from the MOD that will tell them their fate. It is now more than two months since the private and technician from 16 Air Assault Brigade, who do not want to be identified, told their commanding officer they could not justify battling in an illegal war involving the death of innocent civilians.

The revelation at the end of March that British soldiers had dared to down their weapons on moral grounds propelled the military top brass into a frenzy of denial and counter-claim. "lt happened before any military action began so how could they have been sent home for refusing to fight?" asked Major William MacKinley, while a confused MOD spin doctor also said at the time it was "not aware of any evidence" but was "tracing back through the records".

The Big Issue's own investigation has revealed a trail of army bosses stonewalling and even lying to soldiers, and a refusal to release official figures or even acknowledge the existence of the Colchester Two.

Despite this, The Big Issue can now reveal that the pair are not unique, as those in charge would like the public to think, but just two of many serving armed forces members who have turned conscientious objector (CO).

Even though the duo now face court-martial and up to two years in prison, they are among the lucky ones, according to Gwyn Gwyntopher of At Ease, (AE) an independent support group for troubled soldiers, sailors and airmen who gave its first ever interview to The Big Issue, while the war was still being fought.

"These two are just the tip of the iceberg, as we know from all the clients in the same situation who come to us desperate for help.

"Although they emerge in peacetime too, it is war that really brings out COs. We had a big jump with the last Gulf War and we've already had a significant increase this time with callers repeatedly saying it's an illegal war, an unjustified war, a war for oil and 'it's not what I joined up for'.

"Often the issue of civilian casualties triggers them, eg. for one infantryman last time it was having to clear bodies of Iraqis he had just shot, very old and very young Saddam conscripts who were wearing British uniforms.

"For another it was the contrast between the humane attitude of the British trainers and the gung-ho 'kill as many Iraqis as you can' attitude of the American trainers. He told me it was the only time he was ashamed to be a soldier.

"Another very sad referral was a Falklands vet about to be sent to Iraq who said he'd rather kill himself than have to kill yet again," she recalled.

"The Colchester pair have a good lawyer and it appears, from his decision to send them home on compassionate grounds, a sympathetic commanding officer, which can make all the difference in these cases.

"There will be others who felt the same who would have been told to shut up and soldier on or perhaps quietly assigned to medical duties, and yet others sent home we have not heard about.

"But the ones I am really worried about are all those COs who will have gone AWOL, which in war is treated as desertion, a much more serious offence, rather than risk owning up to how they feel and facing court-martial and prison.

"These guys end up doing black economy jobs, living under assumed names, or homeless - terrified that the military police (MPs) will catchup with them.

The armed forces do not let go of their AWOCs without a fight. It is treated as a crime to assist one (even a meal can count) and night shelters are wary of the high percentage who end up homeless for fear of getting raided as Centre-point has been.

Gwyntopher added: "MPs are known to terrify and intimidate families when hunting down AWOL's - one mother had them ransack her house down to each drawer in a chest of drawers looking for her son

What the Forces do not volunteer to new, or old, recruits, is that there is an enshrined right to request an honourable discharge for COs.

However, this information is not only buried under the procedure for compassionate discharge in the Queen's Regulations, but also inaccessible due to the latter's status as a 'restricted' document. As there are no figures for COs, officially they do not exist.

"As far as we know not one of the serving soldiers who's been sent to the Gulf has been told of this right, and those who have raised the matter have either met with total ignorance or been wilfully misled," Gwyntopher states.

Gunner Vic Williams, a former AE client and CO who was jailed for 14 months for going AWOL during the last Gulf War, is a case in point.

"He was told a blatant lie that it ended with conscription decades ago. When he was shown the Regs - which we only got in the first place

"What the Forces don't volunteer is that there is an enshrined right to
an honourable discharge for
conscientious objectors"

because a lawyer had subpoenaed them - he went white as a sheet and said: 'Why didn't the army show me these?'

"The level of ignorance is such that a welfare officer whose job is to advise on rights had never heard of it, so I gave him a load of our leaflets to put up on his base. But it shouldn't be left to small voluntary groups like us to make it known!

"The only ones the army has admitted it to, grudgingly, are reservists, lots of whom called us in March from their mobiles saying:' l don't believe it's right but they're saying I have to go.

"We advised them all to turn up for mobilisation with a statement of their CO and finally most got a temporary exemption, just like in the last Gulf War.

"Because they have access to lawyers, and are allowed to speak to the press without permission, unlike serving members who can get a prison sentence if they do, it's harder for them to be forced into it." (Ex-Forces must serve six years In reserves.)

Apart from the mental and emotional resolve needed to go through a CO discharge, the procedure itself is complex. The first step is for the man or woman to alert their commanding officer, the second a visit to the chaplain for assessment as to their sincerity. The commanding officer then sends off statements from all concerned with a recommendation either way to his superiors for a decision. If rejected, the CO can appeal to the ACCO (Advisory Committee on Conscientious Objection) panel for a hearing, where he has only a one in three chance of success.

Gwyntopher has witnessed first-hand the trauma the process entails. "One client, a shy but very articulate officer in his late 20s declared just as his unit in Germany was to be posted to the last Gulf War. He was from a long-standing army family, who were appalled by his change of heart.

"His friend, a fellow officer, had left on CO grounds, which got him thinking and he became philosophically opposed. He was ostracised on the base by other officers and their wives and had his application rejected. He appealed, waited patiently for months, but the ACCO turned him down despite his tremendous integrity.

"He was so determined he put in a formal complaint, which was rejected at every level right up to the army council. As an officer, he had one place left to appeal, the Queen herself.

"His discharge arrived almost immediately - the political ramifications of a Gulf War CO confronting the Queen were too great so finally they let him go.

"The letter told him to resign his commission immediately, which can imply wrong-doing, even though his record was exemplary, and to this day him father believes him a coward. He actually told one of our counsellors when they called and said they were a friend: 'My son doesn't deserve any friends."'

The officer, like many ex-clients, went on to do a stint as an AE counsellor. Bill Hetherington, who attends ACCO hearings in an official capacity on behalf of the Peace Pledge Union, has also watched moving pleas from COs.

"I will never forget hearing this young Marine, whose friend had died suddenly from an illness, saying how it made him realise for the first time that his job was to cause death and thus condemn others to the grief he was experiencing.

"Usually soldiers can only talk openly about death on Remembrance Sunday, but then it's with a gun salute and in a way that says you'll be ready for the next time.

The Marine was one of 11 COs to get an honourable discharge out of 36 who have come before ACCO since 1970. For the majority though, CO concerns often lead to disciplinary charges with the risk of ending up in Colchester's Correctional Centre, the armed services' 'prison', like another of Gwyntopher's clients.

"Most are young AWOCs, and COs have been detained though they will deny it. One had written dreadful letters to his mum from the Gulf saying he'd become a pacifist, split straight after and lived happily in a hippy commune till the MPs found him. I got him out by threatening his bosses with legal action for false imprisonment and he was let go on medical grounds in the end.

"Many of the COs from the last Gulf War were discharged like this, on a pretext, which shows how difficult the army find it to acknowledge COs within their ranks.

"They also find other ways of making their views of COs clear, eg. by posting them to far-flung places or making them clean toilets."

Gwyntopher points out that there could be an unknown number of COs currently facing charges. "lf a commanding officer just thinks he has a stroppy soldier he can give them up to 60 days detention at a private hearing and if he wants rid of them, a dishonourable discharge."

However, it is not just the soldiers who are scared of prosecution. AE counsellors leave no written or email record of names to protect against MOD raids and even' use code names for clients between themselves for fear of interrogations. "What we don't know, we can't be pressurised to tell," Gwyntopher explains.

When The Big Issue asked the MOD what decision it had taken on the Colchester Two, it said: "We are not aware of any CO cases during the recent operation in Iraq." It also failed to provide any answers to 17 other questions on COs.

Gilbert Blades, the specialist military lawyer representing the pair, revealed that: "Of course they're in a real state because they don't know what's going to happen next." The most likely legal defence, the European Convention on Human Rights, is yet to be tested. Blades believes that article 10 allows soldiers to "express genuine concerns about wisdom of prosecuting war against Iraq".

Hetherington and AE say reform is urgently needed to save more from suffering devastating consequences for  listening to their consciences.

Hetherington wants CO rights widely advertised within the armed forces and a mandatory part of training. "CO should have its own category rather than be classed under compassionate discharge, it deserves that," he added.

AE is lobbying for ACCO to be convened immediately to hear all CO claims, and want any disciplinary charges in such cases suspended pending an ACCO hearing (currently they must be concluded before an ACCO can take place).

"We would like to see all cases not granted a discharge fast-tracked to ACCO," Gwyn said.

Whatever becomes of the Colchester COs, they can be assured pacifist campaigners will continue to battle for widespread acknowledgement of their courage.

One such is Edna Mathieson, niece of a life-long CO who spent three years in prison in WW1. She conceived the first British permanent commemorative stone, dedicated to "all those who established and maintain the right to refuse to kill" and on May 15, International CO Day, she led the seventh annual ceremony at its site in Tavistock Square, London. Mathieson is campaigning to have similar stones set up in towns and cities across Britain.

"At my uncle's funeral his great friend said perhaps one day there'll be a memorial for COs just as there are for servicemen as each in own way demonstrate great bravery.

If the Colchester soldiers could speak out perhaps they would say that to swap one allegiance for the other requires the greatest bravery of all.

At Ease advises armed service members on any type of problem - 020-7247 51 64 (5-7pm Sundays only) atease@advisory. freeserve. co. uk, 28 Commercial St, El 6LS. Contact Edna Mathieson on 020-7237 3731.

A history of objection

Many Quakers received long prison terms for refusing to fight until 1757 Militia Ballot Act exempted them.

WWI Britain was unique in bringing in recognition of CO at the same time as conscription in 1916. Over 16.000 applied for exemption at local tribunals, but most were refused and the majority of appeals rejected. Around 6000 ended up in prison, many on repeated sentences. Many COs could not get jobs for years afterwards.

WW2 60,000 (including 1000 women) COs applied for the emproved tribunal system and 3000 were imprisoned. The success rate at appellate tribunals was much higher than in WWI, Those already serving got the right to claim for the first time in the early 1940s.

Another 10,000 called up between 1945 and the end of conscription in 1960 claimed exemption on CO grounds, the bulk were recognised.