Seventeen years ago, freshly commissioned British officer Robert Campbell dived into the sort of stinking, polluted river you wouldn’t let your dog swim in, to try to save an Iraqi teenager.
But far from being lauded for his selfless, though futile, rescue attempt, this highly decorated former major in the Royal Engineers has been subjected to an atrocious 17-year witch-hunt, whipped up by the ‘Lefty human rights lawyers’ condemned by Boris Johnson in his rousing conference speech last week.
Hell-bent on securing compensation settlements for their British taxpayer-funded Iraqi clients, they accused Mr Campbell and two of his soldiers of forcing 19-year-old suspected looter Said Shabram into the water at gunpoint.
To borrow the Prime Minister’s words, they were ‘defending the indefensible’.
‘You know that feeling of anxiety that’s like an ever-present jeopardy curled up like a fish inside your chest, about to slap you with its tail?’ asks Mr Campbell. ‘The last 17 years have been like that.’
Seventeen years ago, freshly commissioned British officer Robert Campbell, 47, dived into the sort of stinking, polluted river you wouldn’t let your dog swim in, to try to save 19-year-old suspected looter Said Shabram in Basra, Iraq, but the teenager drowned
Last month, Mr Campbell was finally cleared of any wrongdoing after a three-year investigation by a Ministry of Defence quango, the Iraq Fatality Investigations unit [IFI].
He has faced these bogus claims no fewer than seven times before. Each time the case was thrown out. Each time the investigation was reopened a short time later.
Mr Campbell, 47, was in his front room with his wife Charlene, 39, and their one-year-old son when his lawyer called to tell him Baroness Hallett had ruled that the allegations against him were based on lies, collusion and a ‘possible conspiracy to pervert the course of justice’.
‘I sat in that chair and just fell apart.’ He points to the armchair in which I am sitting. ‘Because Charlene didn’t know who was on the phone, she didn’t know why I was crying.
It was kind of, ahhhh ... 17 years and a 17-ton weight that had been on my neck had just been lifted.
‘We didn’t know what the report was going to say. When my lawyer read out, “there is no evidence to suggest anybody was thrown in the water, there is plenty of evidence to suggest these blokes ran into the water of their own volition and there is a f*** load of evidence to suggest the Iraqis made this up” — when she said that ...’
He shakes his head and the emotion of that moment is writ large across his face.
‘But those four or five paragraphs do not undo what the Ministry of Defence has done to me.
'You can’t keep accusing somebody, clearing them and then accusing them over and over,’ says Mr Campbell, who was deployed on four tours of Afghanistan during this torturous witch-hunt, promoted three times and received no fewer than seven medals and commendations for heroism and gallantry.
‘I wrote to eight generals asking for some very basic help — like what support I could get to pay my lawyers. None of them would help me.’
Ranged against him were investigators from the now-defunct Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT) and the human rights lawyers who were seeking compensation for ‘abused’ Iraqis at the British taxpayer’s expense.
Hell-bent on securing compensation settlements for their British taxpayer-funded Iraqi clients, lawyers accused Mr Campbell and two of his soldiers of forcing Said Shabram (pictured) into the water at gunpoint
‘The MoD knew the Iraqis were liars but figured it was cheaper to pay them than fight them in court. The human rights lawyers had no incentive to hurry up and every incentive to rack up what charges they could per hour because the Iraqis were on legal aid.’ He shakes his head.
‘And the Army was dragging its heels to pay our lawyers for more than a year. The Army is forever tweeting about diversity and inclusion but when I asked for some very basic help, I was told to suck it up. I HATE the Army.’
He says this with such emphasis, you have no doubt how deep that hatred flows.
Today, Mr Campbell takes a number of prescription drugs for his mental health issues after suffering ‘four or five complete mental breakdowns’. He has hearing aids, failing eyesight and walks with the help of a stick.
He says: ‘My son is going to soon figure out I’m not like most people’s dads. He’s going to figure out I can’t hear. I take a lot of drugs. I’m not very physical. I can’t run. I can’t cycle.’
Charlene, an articulate, warm-natured woman, is rightly furious for her husband of two years.
Mr Campbell has faced these bogus claims no fewer than seven times before. Each time the case was thrown out. Each time the investigation was reopened a short time later. Pictured: British soldiers from 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery fire at targets in Abu al Khasib, Iraq
‘It’s shocking, isn’t it? Even though we’re living it, I can’t quite believe what has been happening. It has poisoned his whole career because it [the Iraqi teenager’s death] happened less than a year after he was commissioned.’
Mr Campbell was a Lieutenant in 32 Engineer Regiment when he found himself in Basra on that fateful day — May 23, 2003.
‘Basra stank,’ he says. ‘We’d blown up water and electricity works in the initial fighting, so sewage wasn’t getting pumped and people were doing whatever they had to do wherever. Rubbish was chucked in the rivers. There were bombsites everywhere, bodies under the rubble and unexploded devices.
‘Then there was the looting. Everybody was robbing the place blind. There were also reprisals as family feuds were getting settled. It was like Lord Of The Flies.’
‘That day was baking hot — between 40 and 50 degrees, as it was most days ...’ He stops. ‘I don’t want to go there. I’ve tried to block it out.’
Mr Campbell was at the dock with his two men, where they were cleaning their vehicles, when he came across two young Iraqis attempting to steal cable. He asked a fisherman whom he knew spoke English to translate.
Mr Campbell was a Lieutenant in 32 Engineer Regiment when he found himself in Basra on that fateful day — May 23, 2003 (stock image)
‘The fisherman did so and they began to have a heated argument with the two young men,’ he wrote in a 2004 statement, which is his only account of that day until now. A crowd began to gather.
‘I decided this was a situation I didn’t want, so to defuse it, I told the two young men to “get lost”. One of the men ran to the edge of the dock, swam to the other side and pulled himself out of the water with a rope. Shabram, who was still being taunted by the crowd, followed him into the river feet-first but sank like a stone.’
One of his soldiers jumped in to save him. When he failed to find the teenager after two surface dives, Mr Campbell dived in to help.
‘It was horrific,’ he says now. ‘There was so much oil, sewage and stuff in the water, when you dived under it was black as night. Even though the water was seven metres deep, there was so much debris my soldier was cutting his hands.
‘I was in the water for 40-odd minutes, although I was getting in and out to talk on the radio. This other lad was in the water the whole time.’ Mr Campbell shakes his head. He cannot continue.sonos sonos One (Gen 2) - Voice Controlled Smart Speaker with Amazon Alexa Built-in - Black read more