By Estelle Shirbon
LONDON (Reuters) - A British army major disposed of a computer that contained original photographs of the bodies of Iraqis killed in disputed circumstances by throwing it into the sea from a ferry, a public inquiry heard on Wednesday.
James Rands was appearing as a witness at the Al-Sweady inquiry into allegations that British troops executed and tortured Iraqis in the aftermath of a battle near the town of Majar al-Kabir in southern Iraq on May 14, 2004.
The allegations, made by local Iraqis and denied by the soldiers, would, if confirmed by the long-running inquiry, go down as some of the worst atrocities of the Iraq war.
Rands, a junior captain at the time, was an intelligence officer based at Camp Abu Naji, a military base where 20 Iraqi bodies were taken after a fierce gunfight, the British say.
Rands took photos of the bodies which are now key items of evidence in the inquiry. They still exist because copies were circulated before Rands threw the laptop on which he had first downloaded them into the English Channel in 2006.
That act has become a sensitive issue because British lawyers for the Iraqis making the allegations have suggested that he got rid of the laptop to conceal that he had modified the original files to change the timing of the photos.
Rands dismissed that as an "absurd" conspiracy theory.
He said by 2006 the laptop had broken and he was no longer sure if it contained the photos. He disposed of it because he had risen in rank, now required a higher level of security clearance, and had become uneasy about having broken army rules by storing sensitive material on a personal laptop.
"I could not have foreseen the significance of those photos or the accusation that I had changed those timings prior to the allegations being made," he said.
The timing is important because the Iraqi witnesses say some of the men were taken alive and later executed at the camp, while the British say they were killed in battle.
Normal British army practice is to leave enemy dead on the battlefield, but in this case the British say the corpses were transported to the camp because there was a suspicion that insurgent leader Naseer Zachra Abd Rufeiq was among them.
Known among the British as "Bravo 1", Rufeiq was suspected of a central role in the murder of six members of the British Royal Military Police in Majar al-Kabir the previous year.
Rands told the inquiry he had ascertained that Bravo 1 was not among the dead, but he took photos anyway because he thought they might be useful for wider intelligence purposes.
Asked why five of the bodies had their genitals exposed, Rands said this was because they were wearing loose-fitting trousers which had slipped down when the bodies were carried. Asked why he had not covered them up to preserve their dignity, he said that would have been "a pretty unpleasant duty".
Ordered by the government in 2009, the Al-Sweady inquiry conducted three years of preliminary detective work before beginning oral hearings in March this year. It has cost 20.3 million pounds ($33.3 million) so far.
The inquiry has heard evidence from 60 Iraqi witnesses and will hear from some 200 British witnesses in hearings expected to last until next spring. A final report by the chairman, retired judge Thayne Forbes, is not expected until late 2014.
($1 = 0.6092 British pounds)
(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)