Military sentence fails to defuse row

STORM OVER PARATROOPERS: `These men got off very lightly, both in terms of the courts and with their commanding officer'
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The Independent Online
The Army moved swiftly yesterday in an effort to defuse an escalating row over the lenient sentences imposed on four paratroopers convicted of crippling a man in a vicious attack, by taking action under military law.

But the retiring MP for Aldershot, Julian Critchley, at the eye of the storm over the original sentence and comments by Judge David MacLaren Webster QC, was dismayed by the action taken by the men's commanding officer.

The four, instructed to pay compensation to the victim and carry out community service orders, were given formal warnings about their future behaviour and two were reduced in rank from lance-corporal to private.

"I think these men got off very lightly, both in terms of the courts and with their commanding officer," said Mr Critchley. "If a policeman had behaved like this, I rather suspect the sentencing would have been more severe. But at least with this on their records, I can't see that any of them will make sergeant major."

However, it also emerged that one of the four already has a conviction for affray after kicking another man unconscious in 1992 following his return from a tour of duty in Northern Ireland.

The four soldiers, Lance Corporals Stuart Baillie, 26, and Justin Woodcock, 22, and Privates Craig Harris, 23, and James Collins, 21, were back with the 1st Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, in Belfast yesterday after their appearance before Winchester Crown Court.

They had admitted unlaw- fully wounding James McGuire, 33, a carpet fitter and a father of two, when they attacked him outside Night Owls nightclub in Aldershot, Hampshire, causing head injuries, fractured arms and broken ribs which left him in hospital for 10 days. His injuries were so bad that he still cannot pick up his children.

Baillie was ordered to serve 200 hours community service and pay Mr McGuire £4,000 compensation, while the others got 180 hours and must pay £3,000 each in compensation.

In passing sentence, the judge said: "It will be of more value to your country to do some community work than for me to incarcerate you."

Woodcock has already been fined £500 in September 1992 and ordered to pay £1,000 compensation to his victim after Warwick Crown Court heard of a vicious assault on another man.

After the outcry over the latest case, the men's commanding officer, Lt-Col Godfrey McFall, is understood to have spent much of yesterday reviewing the cases and deciding what action to take.

Apart from the reduction to private, the "regimental entries" they all received are black marks in their personal records, which are likely to blight future promotion hopes for the rest of their military careers.

However, Mr Critchley said that the men should have spent time in a military jail over the affair, although he hoped the furore would concentrate the minds of senior officers on discipline. But, he said, that the Parachute Regiment, in particular, had always been a source of trouble, much more than other elite units.

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