MP urges Prince of Wales to intervene in Army racism row

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A Labour MP has called on the Prince of Wales to intervene after the indefinite postponement of a court martial into claims of racial abuse against women guests at a Cheshire Regiment reception. The Prince is honorary Colonel-in-Chief of the regiment.

Keith Vaz, MP for Leicester East, said the delay to the proceedings, granted because one of the defendants has a slipped disc, was "lamentable". The Army's system of justice had broken down, he said.

A year has passed since the incident took place. Two black women attended a dance at the headquarters at Long Stanton in Cambridgeshire of the Cheshire Regiment. In correspondence with the Ministry of Defence, Mr Vaz said the women, one of whom is a constituent, suffered "appalling racial abuse".

It included "chants to her publicly of 'nigger, nigger, nigger' " and "guns being thrust at her" by members of the regiment.

The confrontation with the soldiers arose after one of the women defended a black teenage recruit who was being racially abused at the dance.

The incident is an embarrassment for Prince Charles, who has stressed his commitment to race equality and who, last month, hosted a high-profile visit to Brixton, south London, home to a large ethnic minority population, with President Nelson Mandela of South Africa.

Mr Vaz, who is a Labour front bench spokesman, said yesterday: "The procedure that the Army has adopted means that a year after this appalling incident took place she has still not received justice. With each delay the number of witnesses prepared to come forward to support her declines. Clearly the system has broken down."

Mr Vaz is writing to the Prince of Wales. He added: "I hope that the intervention of the Colonel-in-Chief will have a salutary effect on those involved. The Prince's public utterances have always shown he abhors racism. I am sure he will find this behaviour unacceptable in a regiment of which he is titular head."

In February Lord Howe, Parliamentary Under-secretary at the Ministry of Defence, said that three soldiers had been charged under Section 70 of the Army Act 1995 for using abusive, insulting or provocative language. A subsequent letter from Lord Howe to Mr Vaz on 12 July said two men would face a court martial on 5 August.

An Army spokesman said: "The case has been put off because one of the accused has something wrong with his back.

"The court doctor examined him and, in his opinion, he was unfit to stand trial. We were given no indication about when the case will now be heard."

In 1995 there were 500 courts martial in the services; in 1994 there were 793 and in 1993 858.