Poisoned by their own people

Hundreds of 'volunteers' were injured or even killed in nerve gas experiments at the Porton Down chemical warfare unit. Now at last they may receive justice.

Alan Care
Tuesday 03 October 2000 00:00

Wiltshire Police have disclosed that their investigation into the use of thousands of human "guinea pigs" at the Porton Down chemical warfare establishment is the largest investigation it has ever conducted.

Wiltshire Police have disclosed that their investigation into the use of thousands of human "guinea pigs" at the Porton Down chemical warfare establishment is the largest investigation it has ever conducted.

"Operation Antler" now involves a full-time team of 20 detectives and staff. Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, last month granted their request for up to £800,000 in special assistance to complete their investigation. At long last, those unwitting victims who attended Porton Down may be seeing the glimmer of justice.

The roots of this inquiry can be traced to 6 May 1953, when Leading Airman Ronald Maddison reported to officials at Porton Down, then known as the Chemical and Biological Defence Establishment, for what he believed to be non-military duties. Twenty drops (200mgs) of sarin GB nerve gas were dripped onto his uniformed arms as part of an experiment to see how much protection fatigues gave against chemicals. The twenty-year-old died as a direct result.

Sarin's history as one of the deadliest poisons on earth, even then, was well recorded. But after his death the shutters were slammed down. The Official Secrets Act was invoked and his next-of-kin were sworn to secrecy.

Maddison's father told the family that if he told them what he knew they would "put him in the Tower". The Ministry of Defence paid Maddison's father £16 for the undertaker; £4 for catering and £20 for black clothes. The value put on his life was seemingly very cheap.

Roughly 5,400 servicemen have taken part in human volunteer experiments at Porton Down from 1916 until today. The chemicals and substances tested on them included nerve agents and gases (including sarin, used in recent years to devastating effect by a cult in the Tokyo Underground), mustard gas, Lewisite (a toxic chemical warfare gas), "London smog" air pollution, rubber mixes (used as part of chemical protection equipment) and LSD (the hallucinogenic drug).

The term "volunteer" was a misnomer. The servicemen were not given any adequate information as to the nature of the experiments. In some cases it is alleged there was deception. It appears that many of the young servicemen involved were hoodwinked into volunteering - being told that they were to take part in "common cold" research, before being gassed with nerve agents and mustard gas.

There have been other near and sudden deaths caused by nerve gas experiments prior to Maddison's death, including one serviceman given 300mgs of liquid who nearly died. The internal report into that experiment refers to how within three seconds the nerve agent took action. The volunteer's accounts include: nerve agents placed into eyes causing Chronic Bilateral Conjunctivitis and Blepharitis; nerve gas chamber tests and "dry eye syndrome"; gas chamber experiments causing chronic respiratory illness; neurological illnesses following nerve gas experimentation; skin problems following mustard gas drops onto the arm; psychological problems following experiments including LSD experiments.

One volunteer, Gerald Beech, was put in a gas chamber which was then dosed with gas. "I really began to get scared when the rabbits started dying. When we came out they were all dead. We couldn't see in the daylight for a good 48 hours. Virtually blinded we were. And that was just the beginning of my troubles," he said.

In the years to 1970, scientists at Porton Down appear to have woefully failed to observe the Nuremberg code for human experimentation or to ensure that Prior Informed Consent (PIC) was obtained from the volunteers.

But Operation Antler could go further. After another volunteer, Gordon Bell, contacted the force about his treatment, Wiltshire police are now investigating alleged criminal activities at Porton Down which include murder, manslaughter and "administering noxious substances". And the buck may not stop with the scientists involved, but go all the way to the top, to a succession of defence ministers who may themselves face criminal charges.

If charges are eventually considered, the Crown Prosecution Service will have to decide who in law was "the directing mind" behind the experiments. It is ironic that the Home Office is now funding an investigation that may hold defence ministers culpable. They, ultimately, were responsible for instructing Porton's scientists.

There is the possibility that no action may be taken. There is also the possibility, if the Police refuse to take on such a prosecution, that the Maddison relatives may seek to bring their own private prosecution to get to the truth. Already the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority has said it has no discretion to make awards for injuries prior to 1964, apparently closing that route to the victims.

Civil legal action has also been denied to the victims. The Ministry of Defence hides behind Section 10 of the Crown Proceedings Act 1947, which gives the Ministry of Defence effective immunity from all civil suits for damages for all civil wrongs committed by them. This was repealed in part by a 1987 amendment, but it still prevents legal actions in cases dating back before 1987 - ruling out action by Porton Down volunteers.

If this Section 10 defence is upheld by the English courts, then the "volunteers" will undoubtedly go to Europe to seek redress. And as of yesterday, the Human Rights Act is enshrined in UK legislation. Gerwyn Samuel, a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers, believes there are other possible avenues of redress including breaches of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights, in which Article 3 shows that "no one shall be subjected to torture or degrading treatment or punishment".

The Human Rights Act should help the Porton Down volunteers. Surely, Section 10 prevents their entitlement to "a fair and public hearing" under Article 6 of the newly introduced Act.

As Madison's relatives discovered, the Official Secrets Act has been brought into play. Ronald's death was subject to two secret reports. To this day, the Coroner's papers have not been officially released to the public. One inquiry report was leaked, a copy of which the police now possess. Curiously, there appear to be two differing versions of what happened to Ronald Maddison. One, the official inquiry report, downplays the significance of his death. It said: "The death of this man must be attributed to a personal idiosyncrasy."

There is another version of events in an unreleased report, drawn up internally by Porton Down scientists and kept secret by the MoD, which I am not allowed to discuss. Entitled "A fatal case of poisoning with GB", only a few people, including the Wiltshire police, have seen it. The Defence Evaluation & Research Agency(DERA), which now runs Porton Down, allowed me to read the report on site but not to take notes or photocopies. DERA were willing to release the report but said that the MoD resisted this on what appeared to be declassification grounds.

There is a good reason why the government is so secretive. Sarin is an organo-phosphate (OP), which is used as a pesticide in sheep-dips. Despite repeated complaints from farmers who believe they have been poisoned by their dips, the government continues to deny that OP sheep dips cause long-term ill health.

But even in 1953, the government had indisputable factual evidence which concluded that there was wide variability in the individual responses to OP exposure. The government knew about individual idiosyncrasy and individual susceptibility. Could this in fact be the real reason not to have the facts about Maddison's death made public?

Ministers also appear to have decided that soldiers were dispensable. A series of inter-departmental memos which discussed the possibility of sending civil servants to Porton Down ruled out the proposal because: "If the field of volunteers is to be widened to include civilians there appear to us to be (three) main considerations [such as] that volunteers are assured of compensation in the event of injury."

One rule for civil servants and another for servicemen. No Porton Down volunteer has received any compensation. The series of government memos concludes with the statement "there should be no difficulty about paying reasonable compensation whether the Department has acted negligently or not".

These words with great clarity indicate the long-standing shabby treatment of the Porton Down servicemen. Successive governments have ignored them. They are an ageing population and are dying before they see any justice done.

Alan Care is a lawyer representing over 100 Porton Down volunteers and specialises in personal injury claims involving chemical poisoning with Russell Jones & Walker

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