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Select committee’s proposal aims to protect army personnel from facing reinvestigations

Owen Bowcott, Legal affairs correspondent

Guardian Online – 22 July 2019

A 10-year “qualified statute of limitations” should be introduced to protect veterans and serving armed forces personnel from reinvestigation for alleged crimes, MPs have said. The House of Commons Defence Select Committee also called on the government to consider amending the Human Rights Act to provide a presumption against prosecution for historical offences.

The 47-page report, Drawing a Line: Protecting Veterans By a Statute of Limitations, criticises the government for breaking a promise to safeguard veterans of Northern Ireland’s Troubles from the “spectre” of repeated investigations of events that occurred decades ago. The report welcomes previous Ministry of Defence (MoD) proposals to opt out from the European convention on human rights during future conflicts. However, it points out that under MoD plans those who served in Northern Ireland and those who served abroad would be subject to different legislative regimes. The MoD and Northern Ireland Office have been in dispute over such reforms.

“We have been determined to ensure that justice prevails for veterans and for current service personnel,”

the MPs said,

“whilst ensuring that wrongdoing and criminality are appropriately investigated and punished.”

Neither amnesties nor blanket immunity from prosecution are being sought, the reports says.

“Those who serve in our armed forces are not above the law, but we believe that there is something fundamentally wrong when veterans and [serving] personnel can be investigated and exonerated, only then to become trapped in a cycle of endless reinvestigation. We warn that this state of affairs risks undermining not only morale within the armed forces, and the potential for future recruitment, but also trust in the rule of law.”

The report examined the legal framework underpinning current military engagements at home and abroad as well as legacy investigations into Operation Banner (Northern Ireland), Operation Herrick (Afghanistan) and Operation Telic (Iraq).

A 10-year statute of limitations would be qualified by the proviso that reinvestigations could take place

“where compelling new evidence emerges”.

Such a statute should also operate, as was originally proposed for Northern Ireland, in coordination with a “truth recovery mechanism”. That would

“satisfy legal requirements for investigations to occur – though without the prospect of prosecutions – and therefore help bereaved families to discover the facts,”

the report says. The Committee Chairman, Julian Lewis MP, said:

“We believe in what we term a qualified statute of limitations – one that draws a line after a decade has elapsed unless compelling new evidence can be produced. To meet the requirements of international law that adequate investigation must have taken place, this process could include a truth recovery process where evidence can be taken, without threat of prosecution, finally to uncover the facts.”

Hilary Meredith, a solicitor who acts for service personnel, veterans and their families, said:

“In failing to recommend that the MoD takes corporate responsibility for its own failings, the Defence Committee has missed an opportunity to end the great betrayal of our troops. Where there have been systematic failings by the MoD, in failing to provide adequate training for example, corporate responsibility should apply.”

An MoD spokesperson said:

“No one wants to see our brave personnel subjected to repeated investigations about historical offences, which is why we are launching a consultation today on proposals for providing legal protections for serving and former armed forces personnel. The consultation will also propose introducing an absolute time limit for bringing civil litigation claims against the government, allowing a line to be drawn under claims for historical incidents overseas once and for all.”