MoD fights to shield Bloody Sunday troops

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THE MINISTRY of Defence yesterday threw its weight behind the attempt by former soldiers involved in the Bloody Sunday shootings to maintain their anonymity.

The ministry told the High Court that the special tribunal set up to investigate those events was exposing the soldiers to the risk of injury and death by insisting they must be named. Ian Burnett, QC for the ministry, pledged its "unequivocal support" for the soldiers' latest legal challenge against that decision, on the basis that it was "seriously flawed".

Seventeen men, nearly all from the Parachute Regiment, have been called to give evidence to the tribunal, chaired by Lord Saville of Newdigate, which is due to start hearings in September. All the men fired at least one round during the Bloody Sunday riots on 30 January 1972, when 14 people were shot dead by the army. Fear of revenge terrorist attacks have led them to insist on retaining the anonymity they were given by the original 1972 Widgery inquiry into the shootings.

The new inquiry had been "dismissive" of arguments on the soldiers' behalf by the Ministry of Defence, said Mr Burnett, and its decision should be quashed. "At the heart of the decision is that the applicants will be at risk of death if they are named, and yet [the inquiry] has shown unwillingness to give the slightest protection that anonymity would afford ... it is deliberately choosing to expose those who appear before it to a risk of injury or death, and that is unique in the annals of British justice," he said.

Sydney Kentridge QC, representing the soldiers, accused the tribunal of "going badly wrong" and acting "so unreasonably as to require its ruling to be set aside". The refusal to give the men anonymity undermined their "fundamental right to life", he added.

Yesterday's hearing, pre-sided over by Lord Justice Roch, is the latest move in a year-long legal wrangle over the issue of anonymity which has already seen the tribunal lose both a judicial review and a consequent Appeal Court ruling. The current policy of the tribunal comes after a fresh consultation period which ended in May.

Mr Kentridge said that the new policy ignores the possibility that the inquiry's own hearings could inflame opinion in Northern Ireland. "If a soldier is in the witness box and they have to admit that they fired shots, perhaps fired at a particular person or fired into the crowd, then these feelings of anger are going to be exacerbated," Mr Kentridge said. There were still individuals or groups with the ability to make attacks against soldiers in Great Britain, he added.

Mr Kentridge said that it had been suggested that the families of the dead need to know as much as possible about the details of their deaths, and that the withholding of identities would "add the insult of officialdom protecting its own to the injury of the original crime". But, he said, the tribunal had already made clear that any criminality it found could be the subject of prosecutions.

"The soldiers and their families have lived their lives for 27 years on the basis that they have a certain measure of security against reprisal. That has been important to them and their families, and now on the basis of this decision it is to be simply whipped away," Mr Kentridge said.