A UK security firm linked to two of Britain's top ex-SAS men is at the centre of a prisoner 'abuse' row after photographs revealed employees interrogating a terrified Iraqi youth in a garage in Kirkuk.
Pictures obtained by The Observer show two employees of Erinys restraining the 16-year-old Iraqi with six car tyres around his body. The photographs, taken last May, show the boy frozen with fear in a room where the wall appeared to be marked by bullet holes.
This newspaper was told he was left immobile and without food or water for more than 24 hours. The firm has denied the boy - arrested for stealing a length of cable - was brutally treated. It claimed he was released without harm within minutes.
Erinys has an $80 million (Â£43.1m) contract to guard Iraqi oilfields and installations against attack from insurgents. One of the firm's directors is Major-General John Holmes, the former director of UK Special Forces and head of the SAS. Holmes, who won military medals for bravery and has an OBE, retired from the army in 2002.
At the time the pictures were taken, a second senior director of Erinys was Alastair Morrison, the former SAS officer who won the Military Cross for storming an airliner of hostages in Mogadishu in Somalia in 1977. In 1991, Morrison founded the controversial military firm Defence Systems Limited (DSL). He left Erinys last March to become chief executive of Kroll Security International in London.
There is no suggestion either Holmes or Morrison knew of the interrogation, however the images will renew questions over the activities of the growing number of private security firms in Iraq. Two US firms were implicated in the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal.
Amnesty International said the pictures were 'disturbing' and called for private firms in Iraq to be regulated and monitored.
A spokesman for Erinys confirmed the photographs were authentic and said the firm had suspended one of the employees pictured. They have asked the coalition authorities to launch an 'independent inquiry' into the incident.
A statement released yesterday by Erinys said: 'This process lasted for approximately three minutes, when the youth broke down in tears, at which point the tyres were immediately removed and the individual released into the custody of his father.'
Erinys says the arrest took place last May at the Kirkuk Sector Patrol Base near the K1 gate of the Northern Oil Company compound. A company spokesman claimed the boy was a shepherd arrested by Erinys's pipeline patrol for allegedly stealing newly-laid cable. The company sent a vehicle to collect his father.
The statement said: 'On learning of the circumstances leading to the arrest of his son, the father expressed shame at his son's activities and requested that he be taught a lesson. In the presence of his father, two Erinys employees restrained the youth using tyres.'
The company claims the picture was taken not to brag but to prove 'there was no injury to the individual - no bruising, no bleeding, no torn clothing'.
A source with knowledge of Erinys' operations in Iraq claimed the firm, which employs thousands of Iraqis, keeps suspects in a holding cell in Kirkuk.
The company's statement said it was authorised to detain suspects and conduct investigations. It could not interrogate but could detain suspects until they were handed over to the authorities. The restraining of the boy was a 'one-off event' in the garage of the patrol base.
A spokesman for Amnesty said: 'We have serious concerns regarding the accountability of private military and security companies operating in Iraq. They must be properly regulated and monitored, and operate in a manner consistent with international human rights standards and humanitarian law.'
It is not the first time Erinys's operations in Iraq have come under scrutiny. Last January a South African employee, Francois Strydom, was killed by a bomb outside a Baghdad hotel. Strydom was a former member of Koevot, the apartheid-era paramilitary police unit notorious for torture and murder.
Erinys, which has its headquarters in South Africa, also confirmed to The Observer that it employed mercenary Roger Rouget, who was arrested in Johannesburg last summer and fined for trying to recruit South Africans to fight in Ivory Coast.
Calls by this newspaper to Morrison and Holmes were not returned.