'Hanan's killing has become a symbol of a flawed occupation'

By Severin Carrell

The Independent

01 August 2004

Hanan Saleh Matrud was playing with her friends in a narrow alley which ran beside her house on 21 August last year when the armoured personnel carrier drew up, some 50 metres away.

A unit of troops from the King's Regiment then spilled out of the vehicle. Stories differ about what happened next. The troops insist they came under attack from stone-throwing mobs, and a warning shot was fired. Locals say the only crowds were playing kids, who had been coaxed into the open by the soldiers' offers of chocolate.

What is certain is that Hanan, a shy eight-year-old, fell after the shot was fired - her abdomen slashed open by a ricocheting bullet.

Her uncle, Faleh, ran out of their one-storey home and carried his niece to the British troops. She was rushed to a Czech-run military hospital. She died, despite a six-hour operation. That sudden end to a short life is now a symbol, for human rights activists at Amnesty International and many MPs, of a flawed and ill-equipped occupation by Britain, where civilian casualties are written off as the unfortunate consequences of a necessary war.

Until the case was exposed by Amnesty in May, the Ministry of Defence did not appear to know it had happened or that the Army had admitted a British bullet "possibly" killed her. Nor did they know her grieving family was given $700 (£390) by Army commanders as a form of "blood money" - an officially sanctioned tactic intended to placate furious relatives without admitting to guilt.

For Hanan, who left behind a school report card, a framed portrait and a death certificate, $700 was seen by the Army as sufficient compensation.

In the slums of Karmat Ali, a northern suburb of Basra, the incident caused outrage. Her father, Saleh Matrud, a taxi driver, insists the shooting was unprovoked.

The soldiers "stopped at the end of the alley and they started giving chocolates to the children", he said earlier this year. "But Hanan is shy and she was afraid to go forwards so she stopped by a metal gate. At that moment a bullet came from the British and hit her in the stomach." The Army is adamant the unit had come under "heavy stone throwing from a number of mobs" - but admits no shots were fired at them.

After several visits by British military investigators, an officer wrote to the family in October and admitted to the "possibility" that her fatal wound was "sustained as a result of the warning shot".

For the MoD, the matter ended there. It claims the Army's Special Investigation Branch had met silence from locals. "In the absence of impartial witness evidence or forensic evidence to suggest a soldier had acted outside the rules of engagement, no crime was established," it states.

In May, after Amnesty's intervention, the Matruds submitted a formal claim for proper compensation - a claim now being assessed by MoD officials in London. SC