DUBLIN (AP) — Two retired British soldiers who fatally shot an unarmed Irish Republican Army member outside his Belfast home in 1972 will be prosecuted for murder in a rare case of its kind, Northern Ireland authorities announced Friday.
The Public Prosecution Service in Belfast said in a statement that "all the available evidence" merits murder charges against two Parachute Regiment soldiers who opened fire on 25-year-old Joe McCann, a commander of the outlawed Official IRA faction.
The initial police probe in 1972 found no basis to charge any of the soldiers who fired at McCann in the Markets district, an Official IRA power base during what was the bloodiest year of the entire Northern Ireland conflict. His death provoked days of rioting in Irish nationalist areas of Belfast and Northern Ireland's second-largest city, Londonderry.
But a 2012 fact-finding report by a cold-case unit found that the soldiers had used unjustified lethal force against an unarmed man running away from them. It also concluded that investigators never interviewed key witnesses, including undercover officers tailing McCann at the time.
Northern Ireland Attorney General John Larkin referred the findings to prosecutors in 2014.
The two men charged in McCann's slaying had their names concealed Friday to protect them from potential retaliation and were identified only as Soldier A, 67, and Soldier C, 65.
British soldiers committed more than 300 of the nearly 3,700 slayings during four decades of Northern Ireland strife, but rarely have been charged with murder. The most recent conviction was in 1993.
That could change as teams of cold-case detectives continue to re-examine records of more than 3,000 unsolved killings. Charges are expected, in particular, against former Parachute Regiment soldiers who opened fire on unarmed protesters on Jan. 30, 1972, killing 13 people in what became known as Bloody Sunday.
The lawyer representing the McCann family, Kevin Winters, said Friday's decision offers "some measure of justice after all these years."
But leaders of the territory's British Protestant majority denounced the move as unfair, given the failure to bring many Irish republican militants to justice despite their own grisly record of incessant bombings and more than 2,000 killings.
"Our troops put their lives on the line to defend us and it is important our government stands on their side," Ian Paisley Jr., a member of British Parliament, said.
A former Provisional commander, Martin McGuinness, today helps lead the unity government established under terms of the 1998 Good Friday peace accord.