Soldier acquitted of misconduct over colleague’s death

After incriminating statements were withdrawn by witnesses, a platoon leader is acquitted of misconduct and causing his colleague’s death in Afghanistan

The death of 22-year-old constable Jacob Sten Lund Olsen last year in Afghanistan was not a result of serious misconduct by his 27-year-old platoon leader, Næstved court found yesterday.

But acquittal of the unnamed first lieutenant and platoon leader was not without controversy, however, after he, his company commander, and 17 other witnesses either changed the stories they first gave to military investigators following the death, or said they could not remember details that would incriminate him.

Outside the court house yesterday, Olsen’s mother, Jeannette Neumann, said she was disappointed over the lack of respect shown by the witnesses to the legal process.

“It is incredible that they have experienced this collective memory loss and deny the reports of their interviews," Neumann told journalists. "We have seen the backside of the military’s pretty medals. It’s a closed community where no one says anything. Answers like 'I don’t recall that', or, “I can’t remember' have been said repeatedly through the proceedings.”

Olsen was killed on September 3, 2011, by an improvised explosive device that went off within a building named Compound 91 near the town of Gereshk in Helmand Province.

Olsen was a member of Team 12, second division Bravo company based in Camp Viking, that had gone on a routine patrol. Following the explosion, which killed Olsen and injured four other soldiers, military investigators flew to Afghanistan to interview the soldier witnesses.

The platoon leader was subsequently charged with misconduct after the company commander allegedly told the investigators he had given a verbal order to the leader not to enter the building.

Compound 91 was a known Taliban refuge from which Danish soldiers had previously been attacked. The company commander said an attack on the building was being planned for a later date.

The prosecutor, Kristian Kirk Pedersen from the Military Prosecution Service, based his case against the platoon leader on witness statements collected by investigators indicating Olsen died because the leader disobeyed a direct order from his company commander.

But in court the company commander denied that he had given a verbal order. He said that he had instead given a written “statement of intent” and that the platoon leader acted against this.

Two other witness that had at first said they remember a verbal order being given said in court they had a hard time remembering exactly what instructions were given.

Further witnesses accused the prosecutor of putting words in their mouths. In turn, the prosecutor accused the witnesses of covering for the platoon leader after they later realised that their witness statements could be used to prosecute him.

After the acquittal, military prosecutor Pedersen said there was no case unless the company commander admitted that a verbal order had been given.

“What I understand to be central to the verdict, is the explanation from the company commander who disputed giving a verbal order,” Pedersen said. “I have never experienced a situation in which almost 20 witnesses all arrive in court and claim they have been fundamentally misunderstood.”

The Military Prosecution Service has faced criticism for increasing the number of charges it has brought against military officers. In an open letter this April, 53 officers accused the Ministry of Defence of using the service to wash their hands of responsibility of the unfortunate consequences of dangerous military actions.

The platoon leader’s defence lawyer, Torben Koch, also accused the Military Prosecution Service of being overzealous after he recently helped a major beat charges of dereliction of duty.

Military prosecutor Peter Rask dismissed the criticism, however.

“Annual reports show that we are in line with the ordinary prosecution service in terms of the percentage of acquittals,” he told Jyllands-Posten. “If we believe that a regulation has been broken and that we can prove it, we raise the charges in court. Unfortunately that’s our job and it’s not up for discussion.”

The Military Prosecution Service has two weeks to file an appeal.

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