On Monday 19 March, court martial proceedings against 16 British Army instructors accused of abusing teenage boys collapsed.
In February 2018, 16 sergeants and corporals went before a court martial, accused of assaulting young recruits. But all charges have now been dropped. Critics have asked why the armed forces are the only UK employers allowed to conduct their own criminal trials.
The Peace Pledge Union (PPU), which has been following the case, voiced further concerns to The Canary. It explained that this case also highlights concerns about the recruitment age of British soldiers – the youngest in Europe.
The court martial began on 12 February. 16 army instructors at the Army Foundation College in Harrogate went on trial, charged with the mistreatment of 16 and 17-year-old recruits in 2014. Around 40 young recruits made allegations of abuse against roughly 30 army instructors – 16 of which faced prosecution.
The charges included allegations that they’d smeared animal faeces into the boys’ faces, held their heads under water, and repeatedly punched them.
On 19 March, Alan Large, assistant judge advocate at Bulford Military Court in Wiltshire, blamed the Royal Military Police’s conduct of the investigation, including an “unacceptable delay” in bringing the case to trial. During the proceedings, it emerged that military police took over two years to make arrests.
The PPU reported that the alleged victims made statements to military police from October 2014. No arrests were made until December 2016. And an application for a trial was not made until July 2017. The judge declared in court that military police failed to interview relevant witnesses at the time.
The military police blamed the delay in part on “pressure from other more urgent enquiries”. But the PPU expressed “alarm” that military police did not regard investigating the alleged abuse of young people as an urgent priority. The PPU also stated that the case should have been investigated by civilian police and tried in civilian courts.
After five weeks of court hearings, Large announced that charges against most defendants had been withdrawn. Proceedings relating to the remaining five defendants were “stayed” (the trials will not continue). PPU co-ordinator Symon Hill told The Canary that Large said:
The rationale behind having a separate justice system to serve the armed forces is that it provides a bespoke service which supports and maintains operational effectiveness. Taking over three years to complete this enquiry has manifestly not achieved that purpose.
An army spokesperson said:
Despite the outcome, we will consider carefully whether any internal disciplinary action is necessary. Given this ruling, the Service Prosecuting Authority and the Royal Military Police will be conducting a review to ensure that lessons are learned.
But the PPU told The Canary that the collapse of this trial raised further issues. Hill said this provides further evidence that the armed forces should not be allowed to police themselves or try alleged abusers in their own courts.
This is the latest case to prompt further questions about the investigation of allegations of abuse by the armed forces. Enquiries into suspicious deaths at the Deepcut barracks in Surrey are still ongoing 23 years after the first of the deaths.
Hill said after leaving court:
This is outrageous. The Royal Military Police say they were delayed because of ‘more urgent enquiries’. It is sickening to think that they do not regard investigating the alleged abuse of 16-year-olds as a priority.
He went on to say:
The military police and military courts have a clear conflict of interest. The armed forces are the only organisations allowed to maintain their own police force, to conduct their own criminal trials and to decide whether alleged abusers among their employees should be charged. Imagine if teachers accused of abusing 16-year-old pupils were investigated by their school’s own police force and tried by a jury of teachers.
“Above the law”
The trial had the potential to help the British Army improve its image. As The Canary previously reported, the latest army recruitment campaign was widely criticised in the press. In 2017, Conservatives blocked a move to lower the voting age to 16, claiming 16-year-olds didn’t have the “political knowledge or maturity required”. Yet the UK is the only country in Europe to recruit people as young as 16 into the army. This case raises further concerns about the army’s conduct and treatment of young recruits.
Following the verdict, Hill said:
In a democracy, every organisation must be open to public scrutiny, but the armed forces continue to behave as if they are above the law. We urgently need major changes to ensure that members of the armed forces are subject to the same laws, and share the same rights and responsibilities, as the rest of us.
In September 2018, two SAS soldiers are due to face a court martial at Bulford. This is for their alleged responsibility in the deaths of soldiers during a training incident in 2013. The PPU called for them to be tried by a civilian court instead.
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