Australia to argue 1902 war crimes case was unfair

AP News
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Posted: Oct 21, 2011 7:21 AM
Australia to argue 1902 war crimes case was unfair

Australia's government said Friday that it would tell Britain that two Australian soldiers executed more than a century ago for war crimes in South Africa were likely denied fair trials under the British military justice system.

Australia's intervention comes after the British government rejected in June a petition to pardon Lieutenants Harry "Breaker" Morant and Peter Handcock, who in 1902 became the only Australian soldiers ever executed for war crimes.

The case has become folklore and underscores lingering anger among Australians over their former colonial master's treatment of the pair, who are variously regarded as either scapegoats or murderers.

The pair faced a firing squad in Pretoria on Feb. 27, 1902, 18 hours after separate British courts-martial convicted them of murdering 12 prisoners a year earlier during the Boer War.

Australian Attorney General Robert McClelland said Friday that he was preparing a submission to British Defense Secretary Philip Hammond outlining alleged defects in the court-martial system, including that the defendants received inadequate legal representation and were denied access to some evidence.

McClelland said that if Britain confirmed there were procedural defects in the courts-martial, the convictions would be voided.

"I am advised, indeed by government lawyers, that if established, they would ... be heinous breaches of the procedures of 1902," McClelland told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio, referring to the alleged procedural defects in the trials.

"My preliminary conclusion ... is that there was a denial of procedural fairness," he said.

British-born Morant was a talented horse breaker and published poet who has been immortalized in books, a play and the 1980 award-winning movie "Breaker Morant," directed by Bruce Beresford and starring Edward Woodward. Handcock was a veterinary lieutenant.

A third Australian soldier, Lt. George Witton, was sentenced in 1902 to life in prison for his part in the massacre. He was released two years later after 80,000 Australians signed a petition to British King George VII asking for mercy.

All three had admitted to shooting the prisoners _ Dutch-Afrikaner settlers known as Boers _ but argued that they were obeying British orders to take no prisoners.

James Unkles, an Australian navy lawyer who first petitioned Queen Elizabeth II for pardons in 2009, was confident that the Australian government's intervention would lead to all convictions being annulled and pardons for all three.

"The attorney general's stand is welcome," Unkles said. "It's the first time in 109 years that an Australian government minister has finally, on behalf of the government, taken action."

McClelland said his submission would avoid the controversy over whether or not the three had been following orders that came down from Lord Kitchener, chief of staff to the British commander in the war, when they shot the prisoners.

"By today's standards in particular, there is no way that the shooting of civilians could be justified in any circumstances, but I won't be going into that issue," McClelland said.

Unkles, who said he has received death threats from South Africans since he mounted his campaign on behalf of the Australian soldiers, said the prisoners should not be characterized as civilians, but as guerrilla fighters waging a war against British colonists.

McClelland said he did not intend to raise the issue with the queen, who was in the capital, Canberra, during a 10-day visit to Australia.