Australia to petition UK to re-open cases of its soldiers convicted of war crimes

[JURIST] On Friday, Australian Attorney General Robert McClelland [official website] announced [ABC News transcript] that he will be petitioning the United Kingdom's Ministry of Defense [official website] to re-examine the war crime convictions of Australian Lieutenants Harry "Breaker" Morant [advocacy website] and Peter Handcock during the Boer War. Morant and Handcock were convicted through a court martial of murdering Boer civilians and sentenced to death by firing squad 18 hours later. McClelland believes there are issues of judicial fairness that need to be confronted:

There was a range of material, for instance in the court of enquiry which was held before the court martial, the accused weren't provided with any legal representation. That enquiry also heard evidence that wasn't provided to the accused. The defense lawyer was engaged with essentially one day's notice. The prosecution had three months and the defense lawyer was put in a conflict of interest representing all three accused rather the accused having separate representation. ... I am advised indeed by government lawyers that if established they would also be heinous breaches of the procedures of 1902.
McClelland differentiated the case from previous unsuccessful attempts as looking solely at procedural defects rather than questioning whether or not Morant and Handcock had British orders to shoot the prisoners. He further stated he wanted to make clear to Britain that questions still exist about the government's fair treatment of the Australian soldiers [ABC News report]. Last year, Britain's Secretary of State for Defense, Liam Fox, rejected a petition for pardons brought by several members of Australian parliament.

Morant and Handcock remain the only Australian citizens convicted of war crimes, when they executed Boer civilians and a German missionary in 1901. Both Morant and Handcock claimed they were ordered by British commanders to "take no prisoners" and thus were not culpable for the deaths. A third Australian soldier, George Whitton, was convicted for the murders but was not executed after King George VII received a petition from 80,000 Australian citizens asking for mercy. Morant was well-known as a poet, and his death has been seen by many Australians as an injustice, and a symbol of the United Kingdom's destructive colonial rule over the nation. Despite the support behind absolving Morant and Handcock, many disagree with seeking a pardon for the pair. McClelland admitted that, British orders or not, the two murdered civilians, an act that was unacceptable. The Australian Defense Association [advocacy website] described the petition as arrogant [The Australian report]. Although often regarded as a folk hero in Australia, Morant is viewed in South Africa as a war criminal and citizens have been critical of attempts to pardon the duo [Digital Journal report].

 

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