Mon, Feb 28, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Civilian lawyers to run Britain's courts martial


The British army's court martial system was threatened Saturday with the most dramatic overhaul in its 400-year history after the government's senior lawyer raised serious concerns about the military's ability to investigate allegations against British soldiers.

The Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, questioned whether courts martial are equipped to handle cases such as last week's involving abuse charges against three members of the Royal Fusiliers. And he expressed doubts about whether the Army Prosecution Authority (APA) should investigate serious allegations against soldiers serving overseas.

It is thought that, in complex, high-profile cases, Goldsmith wants the APA replaced with criminal lawyers from outside the army. The model would be the new Serious and Organized Crime Agency, which brings prosecutors and investigators together to examine allegations as soon as they have been lodged.

Saturday Goldsmith opened the door to a major shake-up of the army's powers of investigation when he called for the Ministry of Defense (MoD) to consider the role and scope of courts martial.

He said, "I welcome that the Ministry of Defense has said that it is looking at all of the lessons learnt in light of the experiences of the recent court martial. I hope this will include an examination of the role of prosecutors and investigators."

His comments come as lawyers on both sides of the court martial in Osnabruck, Germany, expressed grave doubts about the way it had been conducted.

On Friday, Corporal Daniel Kenyon, Lance-Corporal Mark Cooley and Lance-Corporal Darren Larkin were found guilty of a range of charges, including assault and aiding and abetting abuse. Kenyon was sentenced to 18 months; Cooley to two years; and Larkin 140 days. Fusilier Gary Bartlam was convicted at an earlier court martial and given 18 months; he is now appealing against the sentence.

Phil Shiner, of Public Interest Lawyers, who has collated evidence from three Iraqis abused by British soldiers but which was not heard at the court martial, welcomed Goldsmith's comments.

"The attorney-general is guardian of the public interest and the gatekeeper of international, humanitarian and criminal law, thus he is right to make his first step in acknowledging that the farce of the court martial shows the military should no longer be allowed to investigate and prosecute themselves," Shiner said.

Goldsmith has made it clear he does not believe the APA is equipped to investigate allegations made against British troops serving in a 21st century theater of war.

"The APA is a professional organization but a small organization which deals with the most difficult and high-profile cases overseas. There are rules that soldiers abide by, and the vast majority of them do the whole time, but anyone who commits a criminal offense will be charged," Goldsmith said.

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