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19 June 2003 Edition

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Court rules Army was wrong to take back McBride killers


The British Army is under increasing pressure to dismiss two soldiers convicted of the murder of Belfast father-of-two Peter McBride, after the Court of Appeal determined that the pair should have been expelled. Amnesty International, British Irish Rights Watch, the Committee on the Administration of Justice, the Pat Finucane Centre and Liberty all welcomed the ruling.

Peter McBride was unarmed and only 18 years old when he was stopped and searched by a unit of the Scotch guards on 4 September 1992. He had been beaten by members of the Scots Guards only a few days earlier, and so naturally felt threatened when he was stopped by the same group again.

After being questioned and providing his details, McBride walked away from the soldiers. As he left, three members of the British Army unit began to chase him and he broke into a run to escape what he must have assumed was another beating.

Two of the soldiers then opened fire and Peter was shot twice in the back from a range of 70 yards. He fell into the open door of a house on the street and, still terrified, found the strength to crawl though the house to the back yard.

Several neighbours tried to tend to him as he lay mortally wounded, but tragically, Peter bled to death from his injuries before he could be taken to hospital.

Two Scots Guardsmen, Mark Wright and James Fisher, were charged with his murder the next day and later convicted, but they served only six years of a life sentence before being given early release in 1998 "due to exceptional circumstances".

After they were freed they were allowed to rejoin their regiment as if nothing had happened.

Since then, the family of Peter McBride has fought furiously to have the two soldiers dismissed from the army, mounting several successful legal challenges in the process.

Now the Court of Appeal has also vindicated the family's position, ruling that there were "no exceptional circumstances" that allowed the army to retain Wright and Fisher as serving soldiers.

Three presiding judges decided, by two to one, that the British Army was wrong not to dismiss the two soldiers, but stopped short of ordering the army to throw them out. Instead, the court issued a legal declaration, stating that the reasons adopted by the British Army Board were not so exceptional as to permit the retention of the two soldiers.

Summarising the judgement, Lord Chief Justice Carswell said the issue was whether the decision to retain the pair had been a valid application of "Queen's Regulations" - the rules governing the actions of the British Army.

One of the regulations states that a soldier should be discharged if he is sentenced to jail, but a proviso exists whereby they can be retained if the army decides there are "exceptional circumstances" - as the British Army board ruled in November 2000. That decision was later upheld at a Judicial Review taken by the McBride family to challenge the army's ruling.

In 1997, Wright and Fisher lost an appeal to be freed early from prison. At that time, they argued that they had already been in prison for five years - two longer than Paratrooper Lee Clegg and Private Ian Thain, who were both convicted after controversial shootings while on duty in Belfast, but released within three years.

This week, Judge McCollum told the court: "Since a sentence of imprisonment almost invariably results in discharge, it is not easy to discern any feature in this case which explains the obvious sympathy and concern which all superior officers involved have displayed for the situation of Wright and Fisher.

"The murder of an innocent fellow citizen should rank as a crime of the greatest magnitude, and one would expect that soldiers who have misused the lethal weaponry with which they are equipped in order to take away a life without justification, should be regarded as quite unfit for further army service."

Speaking outside the courtroom this week, Peter McBride's mother, Jean, said she was "absolutely delighted" by the Court of Appeal ruling.

"Two senior judges have said more or less that it is illegal for these soldiers to still be in the army," she said. "Now I am calling on governments everywhere, the British Ministry of Defence, and everyone else, to insist that these men be removed from the army right away."

Jean McBride feels that Tony Blair cannot now ignore the Appeal court ruling and that urgent steps should now be taken to dismiss her son's killers.

"In any other civilised country, my son's killers would never have been allowed back into an army," she said. "They gave us assurances that these two would never be put in a situation where they could kill again. Then they handed them their guns and sent them off to Iraq."

On Wednesday, John Spellar, the new NIO minister with responsibility for Criminal Justice, Human Rights and Equality, refused to meet with Jean McBride. Spellar was one of the people involved in the decision to allow both Wright and Fisher to remain in the army in 1995. He was a member of the British Army Board that voted to retain the two soldiers in spite of their conviction.
The previous day, at her request, the Pat Finucane Centre had phoned and faxed his office to request an urgent meeting following his appointment as Minister with responsibility for Criminal Justice, Human Rights and Equality. At a press conference on Wednesday, Spellar refused the request. He instead stated that a meeting may be possible with the Secretary of State and the Victims Minister. "I am tired of simply being portrayed as a victim," said McBride. "My human rights were violated by John Spellar. I did not request and I do not want to meet with any other minister. I have heard enough of the guff, blather and excuses from various ministers.

"John Spellar was directly responsible for violating the human rights of my family. He showed scant regard for the criminal justice system, which had found the two men guilty of murder and he reinforced the view that there is no equality of treatment for those who have suffered loss due to the actions of British soldiers."

"Until and unless John Spellar agrees to a meeting I cannot believe that the broader community could co-operate in any way with his office."

"Both Mark Durkan and Gerry Adams have stated that he is totally unfit to take ministerial responsibility for Criminal Justice, Human Rights and Equality. If he wants to prove that he is fit to hold this office the least he can do is meet with me."

"Until John Spellar agrees to meet Jean McBride, no one should agree to meet him," says the Pat Finucane Centre. "The only communication with him should be to express support for Peter McBrideís family and anger at the continued employment of Scots Guards Mark Wright and James Fisher."

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