Britain's military justice system is facing mounting pressure to drop all charges against an SAS sergeant freed from jail by the Appeal Court.
By Sean Rayment, Defence Correspondent
Sunday Telegraph – 9 December 2012
Many senior officers now believe the charges against Sergeant Danny Nightingale should be dropped if his conviction is quashed by the Appeal Court, the Telegraph understands. The move comes as the Ministry of Defence confirmed that an amnesty may be introduced for all members of the armed forces in possession of trophy weapons obtained in foreign conflicts.
Sgt Nightingale's appeal against his conviction for possessing a 9mm Glock given to him as a present by Iraqi troops in 2007 and hundreds of rounds of training ammunition will be heard in the New Year. Lord Chief Justice Igor Judge, the most senior judge in England and Wales, has already reduced the soldier's punishment from 18 months in military detention to a 12 months suspended sentence. But Sgt Nightingale could face a second court martial if the Appeal Court orders the Service Prosecuting Authority, the military equivalent of the Crown Prosecuting Service, to hold a retrial.
The soldier's case was raised again in House of Commons on Thursday by Dr Julian Lewis, the MP for New Forest East, during a debate on defence personnel. Dr Lewis, who has supported Sgt Nightingale throughout his ordeal, said:
"Ministers should bear in mind that if the appeal is successful – I say if – the question will arise of whether there should be a retrial. I hope that, if the appeal against conviction is successful, ministers will have the good sense to say that enough is enough and to make that opinion clear.
The Secretary of State for Defence has made it clear that he is considering – I hope that he will continue to consider it and, indeed, go ahead with it – an amnesty for other service personnel who have brought back and are holding on to, as trophies, weapons that should not still be in their possession.
It would be absurd for the person whose trial had led to the amnesty – we should also remember that an amnesty has already been held locally, which led to other members of the SAS handing in a lot of unauthorised weapons – not to be given the benefit of the fact that an amnesty was now available for everyone else."
Sgt Nightingale has been restored in the Army on full pay although he remains on "gardening leave" until his appeal has been heard. His lawyers believe that he was wrongly advised to plead guilty after the Court Martial Judge Advocate gave the impression that Sgt Nightingale faced five years in a civilian jail if he fought the case and lost.
In ordering a reduction in sentence, the Lord Chief Justice stated that the soldier should be shown mercy because he had not come into possession of either the weapon, a Glock pistol, or the ammunition, by illegal means. Lord Judge added:
"This was an offence of great folly but not one undertaken for any personal gain."
A senior officer told the Telegraph:
"The Sergeant Nightingale affair has been immensely damaging to the Army and the Ministry of Defence - it is a fiasco. The punishment was grossly disproportionate to the offence. Soldiers in similar cases have been fined. The sentence was always going to be reduced.
Another retrial would appear vindictive, especially after the judge rule that the maximum sentence imposed could not exceed a 12 month suspended sentence."
David Cameron, the Prime Minister, has also expressed his "sympathy" for Sgt Nightingale and his family, while Philip Hammond, the Defence Secretary, expressed his "delight" that the soldier would be home for Christmas. He said:
"The justice system has worked. I was pleased that an appeal was heard quickly and it is right that a court should decide on whether the sentence was appropriate. The Court of Appeal has decided the sentence was too harsh and has freed him."
During the appeal hearing the judges heard a glowing recommendation from Lt Col Richard Williams, Sgt Nightingale's former commanding officer, which helped to secure the soldier's early release. Describing the conditions in which Sgt Nightingale and his SAS comrades had operated in Iraq, Col Williams said the SAS came into close contact with a ruthless and "extremely dangerous" enemy every single night without respite.
At least two of Sgt Nightingale's unit were killed in operations, but Lt Col Williams said that despite the extremely "stressful and turbulent" environment in which the SAS operated, he had always acted in an exemplary manner. The court heard how Sgt Nightingale had been given the Glock pistol as a "trophy" by members of the Iraqi Special Forces whom he had been training. He had been intending to decommission the weapon and mount it on the wall of the SAS headquarters in Hereford. However when two of his comrades were killed in action, Sgt Nightingale was asked by his commanding officer to accompany the bodies back home and he forgot about the gun.
He was subsequently taken seriously ill after taking part in a gruelling Amazon race in aid of the families of servicemen and women killed in action. The court heard he suffered brain damage and lost pockets of his memory, which may have also contributed to his forgetfulness about the weapon.