Army chiefs have been ordered to protect soldiers who are raped or sexually assaulted, following a damning inquest verdict on the death of an officer who took her own life after being bullied for alleging she was attacked.
Corporal Anne-Marie Ellement had celebrated her 30th birthday just days before she was found hanging at the Royal Military Police (RMP) barracks in Bulford, Wiltshire, in 2011.
She had suffered a bullying campaign after making allegations that two colleagues had raped her after a night out in Germany, where they were stationed, in 2009. Her alleged rapists are the subject of a new criminal investigation, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) confirmed on Monday night.
Delivering a verdict of suicide on Monday, coroner Nicholas Rheinberg called on the MoD to review how it deals with victims of sex crimes after ruling that bullying, the “lingering” trauma of an alleged rape, “work-related despair” and a romantic break-up were all factors in Cpl Ellement’s suicide.
“I have concerns in relation to the support and welfare support given to a soldier following an allegation of sexual assault,” said Mr Rheinberg. “There is an existing code of practice on services to be provided by the armed forces to victims of crime and sexual assault, I ask that that code of practice be reviewed.”
The coroner also called on the MoD to review its procedures for safeguarding suicidal soldiers and criticised the failure to pass on information to commanders in Britain that Cpl Ellement had been on suicide watch before she was posted back to the UK as “unforgivably bad”.
In a statement, Brigadier John Donnelly, director of personal services, said: “The Army deeply regrets the tragic death of Corporal Anne-Marie Ellement. I want to apologise to her family for the failures the coroner has identified.”
He added: “Where the Army needs to learn lessons, I can assure you this will be done. Our priority is to study the coroner’s conclusions and then identify what further steps can be taken to help prevent a recurrence of this kind of tragedy in the future.”
The tragic suicide of Cpl Ellement, and the trauma of having to go through an inquest lasting weeks, has been tough on her family. Her older sister, Khristina Swain, told The Independent that the last time they saw each other was at a family party. Her smiling sister had celebrated turning 30 and said “Love you” as they parted. Just days later she was dead.
“Anne-Marie was bubbly, loving, bright, intelligent,” said Ms Swain. The loss of her sister has had an “horrendous impact on the family”, said the 39-year-old, who runs a childminding business in Bournemouth.
Monday’s verdict marked the end of the second inquest into the soldier’s death, after a previous one in 2012 failed to deal with the circumstances that led to her suicide. The family sought the backing of human rights group Liberty and fought a judicial review last year to force a new inquest into her death, angry that the cause of her suicide had not been properly examined.
The conclusion of the inquest was delayed last week after MoD lawyers disclosed that there were more than 1,400 documents that the family had not seen. This left Ms Swain “absolutely devastated” and thinking “there could be a cover-up” – something denied by the MoD.
Having to hear, in detail, about the torment of Cpl Ellement in the months before her death, has been hard. No charges were ever brought against her alleged rapists, who were from the same regiment, and the young soldier was subjected to a relentless campaign of bullying.
Cpl Ellement was smeared and dubbed the “girl who cried rape” by some of her colleagues. One of her tormentors, Corporal Sarah Noteyoung, was the girlfriend of one of the men accused of rape. During the inquest she did not deny having called her a “slag” and vowing to “make her life hell”.
The past few weeks have seen Ms Swain and her family endure details of how her sister was bullied. “It’s finding out what my sister actually went through and it’s been hell,” she said. “It’s been so emotional, I’ve been in disbelief seeing some of the witnesses. Some of the bullies have been so cocky and arrogant. I heard one of the bullies giggling in the court. One day I did actually break in there, I left the court crying.”
The sad reality is that Cpl Ellement’s suffering at the hands of her fellow soldiers is part of a wider pattern of abuse. It emerged last week that more than 200 allegations of rape and sexual offences have been made against military personnel by their colleagues in the past three years alone, according to figures released under the Freedom of Information Act. Yet just five servicemen were convicted of rape and 22 of sexual assault between October 2011 and November 2013.
In the case of the RMP, there’s a “huge problem” of rape not being taking seriously enough and “a huge bullying culture," claimed Ms Swain. Her sister was an alleged rape victim but people “called her a liar” and “nobody supported her, nobody believed her and instead she’d just been constantly bullied”. She added: “If they reacted to the bullying, that could have been stopped and Anne-Marie could have lived the life she wanted and still be with us.”
The verdict of suicide, with the coroner making a series of recommendations for the MoD to review the way it deals with vulnerable soldiers, was a “total relief” for Ms Swain, who said: “I feel justice has finally been done.”
She described how a “great big cloud” has been lifted from her, but remains “deeply saddened” by her belief that if her sister had been listened to and looked after, “she would still be here today”.
With the inquest at an end, another battle is beginning. For the rape allegations are now being re-investigated. The first investigation by the RMP, in which important forensic tests were not carried out and medical evidence was overlooked, was fatally flawed, according to Ms Swain. “One of the guys... it was his friend who was actually doing the investigation to start off with when they arrested him,” she said. A subsequent reinvestigation by the Royal Navy Police, failed to result in any charges being brought.
In a statement on Monday, an MoD spokesman said: “Our thoughts remain with the family of Anne-Marie Ellement. After considering new lines of inquiry, we can confirm that Royal Air Force Police, alongside Bedfordshire Police, are conducting a new investigation into the allegations. We will continue to keep the family informed as this investigation progresses.”
Asked if she thinks the men who allegedly raped her sister will be brought to justice, Ms Swain simply says: “I believe so, yes. This isn’t over yet.”