CALLS have been made to end the “witch hunt” of veterans after two OAPs were finally cleared of killing an IRA gunman 49 years ago.
The “farcical” five-year prosecution collapsed on Tuesday after the judge said the only evidence against the vets had been obtained unfairly.
General Lord Dannatt, a former head of the armed forces, welcomed the acquittal and said the trial had been an "outrage".
"I am delighted that the case has collapsed," he told The Sun.
"It is morally disgraceful soldiers that soldiers who voluntarily give interviews to any inquiry team on the basis that they are providing information to establish facts find it turned into the case for a prosecution. It is outrageous.
"It calls into question why any veteran would now voluntarily give evidence to an enquiry team. Why would you have confidence that it is not going to be used against you."
Former veterans minister Johnny Mercer flew to Belfast and sat in the public gallery in a show of support for soldiers .
The PM sacked him last month after he accused the Northern Ireland office of dragging its heels over legislation to end vexatious claims.
Mr Mercer wrote in the Telegraph that the trial was a “farce”, and added: "This witch hunt should never have got this far.
“The cowards at Westminster must fulfil their promises.
“The train has left the station on its route of vindictive persecution, and it will not stop of its own accord. For as long as these trials persist, the Government's commitments to veterans are hollow.
“It's a disgrace. Time to honour our promises to a generation of veterans to whom we owe so much.”
This witch hunt should never have got this far
Gen Sir Peter Wall, who served as Army chief under former Prime Minister David Cameron, said: "It's an utter disgrace that former soldiers going about their duty can be brought to court on such flawed evidence 50 years on. This is a politically motivated witch hunt."
Admiral Lord West, the former First Sea Lord, said: "It seems extraordinary that really appalling atrocities committed by the IRA seem not to be investigated and yet alleged killings by British troops should be investigated and reinvestigated. There really has to be a line drawn under this."
PROTECTION FOR TROOPS
Yesterday’s case put a spotlight on government pledges to protect British troops from witch hunts.
Defence lawyers called for a judge-led review of how prosecutors took the case forward – after being made aware their evidence was flimsy as far back as 2016 .
Philip Barden, who represented the vets, said: “The stress of these proceedings on the soldiers and their families cannot be underestimated.
“This is a prosecution that should never have got off the ground. Before initiating the prosecution, the PPS had all the relevant information to conclude that the evidence was clearly inadmissible.
“Despite this, the prosecution proceeded. The soldiers’ lives were placed at risk…and having both served their country for over 20 years, they have spent five years of their retirement facing an entirely unjustified prosecution for murder nearly 50 years after the event.”
The case relied on interviews the soldiers gave at the time and again in 2010 when the case was reinvestigated by a Historic Enquiries Team.
A third ex-para, known as soldier B, has since died.
Mr Justice O'Hara said the evidence was inadmissible because the soldiers were never cautioned that they were under suspicion of murder.
They were also compelled to give evidence to Royal Military Police and did not have lawyers at the time.
The prosecution did not appeal and declined to produce more evidence.
The judge, Mr Justice O’Hara told the defendants: “In the circumstances Mr A and C I formally find you not guilty of the charge of murder.”
Moments later the two accused, dressed in suits and ties, walked from the court.
He was wearing a wig and disguise but was unarmed when he died.
Joe McCann’s widow Anne sat in the gallery during hearing.
After the no-jury hearing, Mr Mercer said the men, in their seventies, should never have been in court.
He told The Sun: "The whole thing was like something out of Monty Python.
"One of the men could hardly hear. They found it very difficult to remember what had happened in 1972."
He added: "They should never have been on trial.”
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Mr Mercer said he was “delighted” for the former soldiers who could “go and live the rest of their lives in peace”
He added: “The government has made very clear promises, and the prime minister has made very clear promises, on legislation to end the relentless pursuit of those who served their country in Northern Ireland.
“It is time to deliver on that.”
It was reported last night that other pending prosecutions of former soldiers are to be reviewed in light of the judge’s ruling.
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