London: Britain’s Defence Ministry came under fire on 8 April for allowing 15 British sailors and marines held by Iran for 13 days to sell their stories to the media.
The ministry said it had decided to waive rules barring serving military personnel from selling their stories because of the huge public interest.
“These are considered to be exceptional circumstances,” a ministry spokeswoman said.
Some popular British newspapers pay people for their sensational stories to boost sales. The spokeswoman said the 15 would be able to keep fees which press reports estimated could total as much as 250,000 pounds ($493,500).
The 15 were freed last Thursday after being seized by Iranian forces in the Shatt al-Arab waterway between Iraq and Iran. Iran said they were detained for entering its waters illegally. Britain said they were in Iraqi waters.
Several of the sailors and marines, particularly the only woman among them, Faye Turney, became well known after they were shown repeatedly on Iranian television during the standoff.
On their return to Britain, the sailors and marines said they were blindfolded, bound, kept in isolation and told they faced up to seven years in jail.
William Hague, foreign affairs spokesman of the opposition Conservative Party, said the decision to let the 15 sell their stories set an important precedent and the Conservatives would raise questions about it when parliament re-opened on 16 April.
He said the armed forces would gradually lose dignity and respect if military personnel were allowed to sell their stories whenever they had been in a difficult situation.
“There are incredible acts of heroism ... on a weekly, daily basis sometimes in operations in Afghanistan and Iraq but they are not written about,” Hague told Sky News.
Hague said the Conservatives would also ask the government to make a statement on the circumstances surrounding the capture of the 15 and what would be done to prevent it happening again.
Menzies Campbell, leader of the opposition Liberal Democrats, said there were strong reasons not to have granted permission to the 15 to sell their stories.
He predicted a public backlash against the decision because in the same week that the 15 were brought home safely, six more British soldiers were killed in Iraq.
“People will compare and contrast the circumstances of those who have been successfully brought home (and) the circumstances of the families of those who have died,” he told BBC News 24.
Colonel Bob Stewart, former commander of British peacekeeping forces in Bosnia, told the BBC the decision to let them publish was unprecedented and called the capture “hardly one of the most glorious annals of royal naval history”.
Some media reports suggested the 15 were being allowed to tell their stories because they were seen as useful in a propaganda war between Britain and Iran.
The two countries are at loggerheads over Iran’s nuclear programme and British Prime Minister Tony Blair has accused “elements of the Iranian regime” of financing, arming and supporting terrorism in Iraq.