Inside Parliament: Falklands chief marshals peers over war crimes

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Field Marshal Lord Bramall yesterday spoke up for some of the men who helped crown his military career, as he and other peers appealed to ministers not to allow any prosecution of British servicemen for war crimes alleged to have occurred in the Falklands.

Barbara Mills, the Director of Public Prosecutions, is still considering the findings of an investigation by the Metropolitan Police into claims that men from the Parachute Regiment killed Argentine troops who had already surrendered in the battle for Mt Longdon in June 1982.

But Lord Bramall, Chief of the General Staff during the Falklands War, and an apparent majority listening to yesterday's Question Time exchanges in the Upper House, want the case to be dropped. They complained of a delay in reaching a decision - the DPP was handed the police report on 29 March - and wanted the Attorney General, Sir Nicholas Lyell, to intervene.

Lord Bramall said the 'alleged incidents' had to be put in a proper perspective. 'Infinite damage' could be done if the soldiers had to wait for the 'benefit of the doubt' to be exercised by a court rather than by the attorney.

'With the lapse of time and the intense war-like circumstances, which have recently been brought home to us in our memories of the ferocious fighting in Normandy, there is bound to be doubt. Should not that benefit of the doubt go to those who went 8,000 miles to risk their lives for our kith and kin and for the benefit of the whole nation?'

Baroness Strange, a Conservative and President of the War Widows' Association, said one member whose husband fought in 3 Para and was killed on Mt Longdon, had suffered a nervous breakdown over the 'endless' inquiry: 'And no wonder.'

The police began their investigation in August 1992 at the request of the Crown Prosecution Service, following claims by a former paratrooper that some of his comrades had executed prisoners and mutilated Argentine corpses.

L/Cpl Vincent Bramley made the allegations in his best-selling account of the Falklands campaign, Excursion to Hell, published in 1991.

For the Government, Lord Rodger of Earlsferry, the Lord Advocate, acknowledged that the wait 'must inevitably cause anguish'. But he rejected Lady Strange's charge of 'procrastination'. A decision would be taken 'with all the expedition' appropriate to the case.

Lord Rodger assured peers that the DPP had consulted Sir Nicholas and that the kind of factors raised by Lord Brammall would be taken into account in any decision.

Summing up the message to the law officers, the former Tory minister Lord Elton judged that it was the opinion of a 'very large majority' of peers, 'that whatever may have been the case in the past, it no longer is in the public interest that there should be a prosecution'.

Peers moved on to the domestic battleground as they debated the Local Government Etc (Scotland) Bill, concerning the redrawing the political map north of the border.

This is heavily churned terrain, the Bill having run for some 200 hours in the Commons, but Labour and Liberal Democrat peers threatened another wearying campaign against what they see as an attempt to gerrymander boundaries to create Tory 'safe havens'.