Late pardon beckons for Breaker Morant

Australian officials press Britain to clear name of Boer War soldier shot for killing unarmed prisoners

Harry "Breaker" Morant, a bush poet-turned-soldier who was executed by the British during the Boer War, is a step closer to a posthumous pardon after the Australian government said yesterday it would ask Britain to re-open the case.

Morant and another Australian army lieutenant, Peter Handcock, faced a firing squad in 1902 for killing 12 unarmed Boer prisoners. A third man, George Witton, was jailed for life. Descendants of the three believe they did not receive a fair trial, and have been campaigning for years to clear their names. The affair was dramatised in the 1980 film Breaker Morant, directed by Bruce Beresford and starring Edward Woodward.

Now Australian officials are backing the men's families, with the Attorney-General, Robert McClelland, saying he planned to take up the case with the Government in London. After examining the evidence, he told ABC radio: "My preliminary conclusion ... is that there was a denial of procedural fairness."

Mr McClelland is preparing a submission to the Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, outlining apparent defects in the court-martial procedure, including the fact that the defendants received inadequate legal representation and were denied access to certain evidence. If those defects were confirmed, he said, the convictions would be overturned.

The three never denied the shootings, but claimed they acted in the fog of war. They also maintained that Lord Kitchener, the commander of British troops in South Africa, had handed down secret orders not to take any prisoners.

Morant was a legendary horse-breaker, originally from Somerset, who is thought to have emigrated to Queensland in 1883. He worked on cattle stations in the outback and wrote ballads about rural life that were published in The Bulletin magazine. A womanising, hard-drinking charmer, he volunteered for the Boer War at time when Australia was still a collection of British colonies.

The killings of prisoners took place over four days, and followed the death of the men's commanding officer, Captain Frederick Hunt, in an assault on a Boer stronghold. Hunt was a close friend of Morant's, and the latter was reportedly enraged by accounts that his body was mutilated. His last words, as he faced the firing squad, were: "Shoot straight, you bastards!"

Morant and Handcock are the only Australians ever executed for war crimes. Witton was released from prison after three years following a petition by 80,000 Australians to King Edward VII.

Last year, Mr Hammond's predecessor, Liam Fox, rejected the families' petition for a pardon. But James Unkles, a military lawyer who has spearheaded their campaign, said yesterday he was confident that the Australian government's intervention would lead to the convictions being annulled.

Handcock's great-grandson, Michael, told The Independent earlier this year that the execution had long been "the cause of great shame for the family". "I'm hoping the record can be set straight now," he said.

"Let the evidence be examined, let the truth come out and, if need be, let the history books be rewritten."