The campaign to free SAS soldier Sergeant Danny Nightingale has sparked a public row between ministers, as the Attorney-General refused to invtervene in the case.
Dominic Grieve was forced to issue a statement insisting it “would undermine the justice system” for him to become involved in legal proceedings, after Defence Secretary Philip Hammond raised the hopes of Sgt Nightingale’s wife Sally by asking him to review the case.
Mr Grieve’s public insistence that he does not have the power to act – which came less than an hour after Mr Hammond’s statement – will enrage Tory activists who already believe that the Attorney-General is too liberal.
The political spat came as the SAS soldier’s former commanding officer called on the government to end this “appalling miscarriage of justice”.
There has been mounting outrage over the jailing of the Special Forces soldier after he was sentenced to 18 months by a Court Martial for being found with a pistol, which was brought home from Iraq by colleagues and he insists he had forgotten about.
Tomorrow his lawyers are planning on lodging an appeal against the 37-year-old’s conviction.
In an apparent attempt to make clear he has no authority over military courts, Mr Hammond this morning asked Mr Grieve to examine the case, placing the Attorney General in the uncomfortable position of having to refuse to do so.
“It would be inappropriate for the Attorney General to review either the decision to prosecute or comment on the appropriateness of the sentence,” his office said in a statement, insisting that he did not have the power to “undermine the justice system” in this way.
Mrs Nightingale said: “I was extremely hopeful of an early decision on Danny’s fate after the announcement of the Defence Secretary, who asked for a review of his case, so I am very disappointed that the Attorney General has refused to do so. The appeal is being lodged tomorrow and I hope that he will at least consider reviewing any decision by the Service Prosecuting Authority to oppose the appeal and seek a re-trial if Danny’s conviction is quashed.”
David Cameron’s spokesman said the Prime Minister was sympathetic to the Nightingale family, but said it was a “case where due process has to be followed”.
Speaking to The Independent, Sgt Nightingale’s former commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel Richard Williams said: “The government must ensure that justice is done. This is an unjust judgement followed by an unjust sentence against a man who did his duty only to be hammered.”
After Sgt Nightingale flew home with the bodies of two colleagues in 2007, a 9mm Glock pistol he had been given by an Iraqi soldier was packed up and shipped back amongst his kit. It was left in storage before being transferred to his quarters, forgotten by Sgt Nightingale who suffered brain damage and memory loss after collapsing during an endurance run. It remained undiscovered until police searched his quarters over an unrelated matter.
Insisting Sgt Nightingale was a “sacrificial lamb” for a break down in procedures, Lt Col Williams said: “I am surprised there has not been more comment from ex military senior officers. This was clearly a miscarriage of justice. It is interesting to me that they are not opposing it.”
Today the non-commissioned officer’s solicitor Simon McKay said that they were planning on lodging an appeal despite the fact that he pleaded guilty: “It is unusual but it has been done on a number of occasions, the test for the court is whether Sgt Nightingale’s plea was a genuine reflection of guilt.”
Prior to the Court Martial, the lawyer explained, Sgt Nightingale was given some stark options: “The judge gave an indication as to how the case could unfold and that he would be jailed for a potential five years if found guilty but would probably not face custody at all if he pleaded guilty.
“In characteristic fashion he took the bullet for the family as there was no prospect they could be without him for five years. He has two beautiful little girls, aged two and five, and an elderly father. His guilty plea was a selfless act to minimise the stress on his family.”