The trial in a Copenhagen district court marks the first time in Denmark that soldiers are accused of violating the Geneva Convention on the protection of civilians in times of war.

Charges were brought against the five officers after an interpreter at Camp Eden, near Basra in southern Iraq, reported that prisoners had been abused there on three occasions in March, April and June 2004.

The female officer, 37-year-old reserve captain Annemette Hommel, is charged with dereliction of duty for forcing prisoners to kneel during lengthy interrogations and refusing to give them food and water or let them go to the toilet.

Degrading treatment

According to the charges against her, the detainees were verbally humiliated by being addressed "in a way particularly insulting for Muslims".

Abuse of Iraqis has become a
critical issue in the US and UK

She allegedly called them "dogs, pigs, etc." and told one prisoner "we may kill you", the charge sheet said.

"I would like to emphasise that we in this case are in no way talking about torture and that Annemette Hommel in no way has participated in any form of torture or abuse," Hommel's lawyer Ebbe Mogensen insisted in court on Monday, according to a report in the Danish daily Jyllands Posten.

"The three counts she is charged with cannot be compared with what American and British soldiers have done," he added.

Denmark's debate

Although not as serious as some of the torture claims against US and British soldiers, including at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, the charges against Hommel and the sergeants have created a scandal in Denmark, where a heated debate still rages over the country's participation in the Iraq war.  

"The three counts she is charged with cannot be compared with what American and British soldiers have done"

Ebbe Mogensen
Defence lawyer

Denmark, one of Washington's staunchest allies, currently has 529 soldiers in Iraq, 500 of whom are stationed under British command at Camp Eden, recently renamed Camp Danevang.

The Danish military claims it published a directive in October 2003 on the use of force by Danish soldiers in Iraq, but during questioning on Monday, Hommel insisted that she had never been given any guidelines on how to interrogate and treat Iraqi prisoners.

"I have never heard of that directive," she said, quoted by Danish news agency Ritzau. Hommel on Monday also put forward a demand for 200,000 kroner ($35,000) in compensation for having been denied a hearing when she was discharged from the military last June.

Identities withheld

Hommel's interrogation is scheduled to continue on Tuesday. The four other defendants, whose identities have not been disclosed, have been charged with the same offences as Hommel, allegedly committed only in March last year.

One of them is also accused of forcing a prisoner to stay outside at night in the cold without any blankets.

In 2004, a case involving British
abuse of Iraqis emerged

Two of the officers allegedly dragged a prisoner to an interrogation tent where he arrived with his trousers down around his ankles.

While the case follows procedures set by Danish military code, the judge and defence lawyers are civilians. Only the prosecutor represents the military.

The trial is scheduled to last 27 days, but the verdict is not expected until December.