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Sergeant Alexander Blackman – Searching For The Truth By Julian Nettlefold

 

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The 28th October Rally

The Editor had the privilege to attend the quiet, dignified and ordered rally for Sgt. Alexander Blackman, we will emphasise,  not ‘political protest’ as the MoD tried to claim, outside the Houses of Parliament in Parliament Square to bring the case of Sergeant Alexander Blackman to the attention of Parliament and the British people in general.

What was clearly evident from people interviewed at the rally was that everyone admitted that Sergeant Blackman had done wrong and did deserve some form of punishment, but certainly not a life sentence for murder.

At first sight of the evidence available at the time of his trail, it looks like a simple case of a murder by a British Soldier whilst on duty in Afghanistan which carries the automatic life sentence, job done, see you in ten years Sgt. Blackman! That saved the UK MoD any embarrassment over the possibility that there was any other version of the story which does not give the MoD the ability to see that it has played fairly to the Afghan people and to make an example of Sergeant Blackman, ‘Pour encourager les autres.’ Indeed in a conversation with one of the participants in the rally, the Editor was told of wider MoD policy where soldiers, usually officers, involved in the interrogation process in Afghanistan were ‘encouraged to find a lawyer at their own cost,’ in case of any actions from the MoD regarding inappropriate behaviour during interrogation. The person’s concerned friend did not have to resort to the legal process, however BATTLESPACE understand that other officers did.

The Ministry of Defence had banned a large number of serving soldiers from attending the rally in support of Sergeant Blackman, saying that the event was a ‘political protest.’ However, lawyers representing the rally organisers stated that was not the case, rather, the event was ‘a show of support to one of our fellow Royal Marines and not a ‘political protest.’

A related online government petition raised over 100,000 signatures calling for Sergeant Blackman’s immediate release stating that the soldier had been condemned for defending his country. Within hours of the MOD’s decision Michael Fallon, Minister for Defence, put out a government statement saying that the UK would maintain military operations in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future.

But, new evidence was gleaned by the Editor at the rally which not only could clear Sgt. Blackman of murder but also provide mitigating circumstances in the form of his suffering from possible PTSD after five long and gruelling tours in Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan. The Editor understand that there was no Psychiatric Evidence called at the Trial to prove or disprove the existence of PTSD or any other condition including Combat Stress. In addition Sgt. Blackman had served five months at FoB Robinson and had seen many of his friends dismembered by the Taliban and their limbs hung from trees.

blackman4However, the most crucial piece of information came from one of Sgt. Blackman’s colleagues who told the Editor the details of the  wounded Taliban insurgent(not soldier, thus not subject to the Geneva Convention!). When Sgt. Blackman and his Section arrived at the scene the wounds inflicted by the Apache on the Taliban insurgent were described as  ‘horrendous,’ the Editor was told. Two 30mm canon shells had pierced the Taliban insurgent  with one breaking his spine in two. Anyone of our readers who has seen the damage which a 30mm canon shell inflicts on a vehicle, let alone a human body, will know that anyone on the wrong end of one, let alone two, will have little chance of survival. So, had the Taliban insurgent been a horse or a dog, Sgt. Blackman would have been Mentioned in Dispatches for a humane killing! There is little doubt that if the Taliban insurgent had survived a medivac, that he would have been in excruciating pain on the journey and would likely have died on the way. But, the other crucial point is that there was no Post Mortem evidence submitted at the Trial, just the video evidence from the soldier’s camera which was not an official MoD video in any event. The law states that only a trained medical professional can prnounce a body as dead.

Apache AH Mk1 Helmand-1How much life did the Taliban insurgent have left? How long would he have survived if treated and was the damage inflicted by the shells fatal before Sgt. Blackman fired? The evidence suggest that the insurgent was dead or very close to death when Sgt. Blackman fired.

Any murder trail requires such evidence as to murder, manslaughter or an other cause, this should have been submitted or a doctor’s opinion as to the state of the Taliban insurgent from viewing the video. Was the movement detected by the video in the mortally  wounded Taliban insurgent natural movement or a death rattle? Did Sgt. Blackman take a decision that it was kinder to relieve him of his suffering albeit his statement whilst doing it was very much ‘Army Talk,’ and not that of a battlefield medic!

30mmIf Sgt. Blackman had desicated a dead body against the Geneva Convention, (although this relates to serving soldiers not terrorists) this carries a much lighter sentence. Why was this not considered at the Trial and why did Sgt. Blackman’s legal team withhold key evidence from the Court?  Where they encouraged to do so by the MoD lawyers at a Case Conference which should have taken place prior to the Hearings. Withholding of key evidence is the major cause of miscarriages of justice, which the Editor has personal experience of! Hopefully this evidence will have to be submitted at any appeal and Sgt. Blackman’s lawyers will have to explain to the Judge why this evidence was withheld. He will then have a case against his lawyers for negligence.

The matter only came to the attention of the MoD after other Royal Marines circulated the video amongst them. Why did the MoD not bury the story and just reprimand Sgt. Blackman? We give a comparison below of a much worse incident involving US soldiers in the ‘Shinwar massacre,’ which involved the much more serious crime of murdering innocent civilians not terrorists. Crucially as we will see below, No criminal charges were brought, although “some officers” did receive an “administrative reprimand.”

 

The 15 September 2011 Incident

So what did happen on 15 September 2011?

Wikipedia gives a detailed description below.

The 2011 Helmand Province incident was the killing, on 15 September 2011, of an injured Taliban insurgent by Royal Marines. Three Royal Marines, known during their trial as Marines A, B, and C, were anonymously tried by court-martial. On 8 November 2013, Marines B and C were acquitted, but Marine A was found guilty of the murder of the Afghan combatant, in contravention of section 42 of the Armed Forces Act 2006. This made him the first British soldier to be convicted of a battlefield murder whilst serving abroad since the Second World War.

Later, on 5 December, Lord Chief Justice Lord Thomas and two other High Court judges lifted the existing anonymity order on Marine A, allowing him to be named as Sergeant Alexander Wayne Blackman. On 6 December, Blackman was sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum term of 10 years, and dismissed with disgrace from the British Armed Forces. On 22 May 2014, the Court of Appeal reduced his minimum term to 8 years.

On 19 December 2013, the anonymity order on Marines B and C was also lifted by the Court, and they were named as Corporal Christopher Glyn Watson and Marine Jack Alexander Hammond.

Event

The incident took place in Helmand Province during Operation Herrick 14, part of the British effort in the War in Afghanistan. Blackman, of 42 Commando, Royal Marines, was part of a Marine patrol that came across an Afghan fighter in a field wounded by Apache Helicopter gunfire. Blackman ordered the Afghan to be moved out of sight of the British Persistent Ground Surveillance System, a camera on a balloon above British Forward Operating Base Shazad, Helmand, covering the area Blackman’s patrol had been sent to (It is very unlikley that this is accuarte as the Persistent Ground Surveillance System has a range of over 50kms during the day and night!).  Video evidence played at the Marines’ subsequent trial shows them dragging the man across the field and then kicking him. Blackman ordered other servicemen to stop administering first aid to the insurgent and eventually shot the man in the chest with a 9mm pistol, saying: “Shuffle off this mortal coil, you cunt. It’s nothing you wouldn’t do to us.” He then added: “I just broke the Geneva Convention.”

Criminal trial and sentencing

After the 15 September incident, Blackman continued with his tour of duty, leaving Helmand Province in late October 2011. On 13 October 2012, at the decision of the Service Prosecution Authority, Marines A–E were charged with the murder of the unnamed Afghan insurgent. The lead came after British civilian police discovered suspicious video footage on a serviceman’s laptop. Marines D and E had charges against them dropped on 5 February 2013.  Marines A, B and C first appeared in court in August 2013, where they entered a not-guilty plea. The military trial of Marines A, B and C, protected from view in court behind a screen because of an anonymity order, began on 23 October 2013 and lasted two weeks. Their court-martial board (equivalent to a jury in the civilian justice system) was seven strong, something usually only done for the more serious cases.

The verdict (8 November 2013) and sentence (6 December 2013) were both delivered at the Military Court Centre in Bulford, Wiltshire. The judge advocate (the civilian judge heading up the panel at a court-martial) was Judge Advocate General Jeff Blackett. The verdict carried with it a mandatory life sentence, so it was only in the judge advocate’s and court-martial board’s power to decide on the minimum sentence once the board had found Blackman guilty. He was sentenced to a minimum of 10 years in prison. On 22 May 2014, at the Courts Martial Appeal Court, its most senior judge, Lord Chief Justice Lord Thomas, upheld the life sentence, but reduced Blackman’s minimum term to 8 years.

Anonymity orders

A ruling leading to three of the Marines involved being publicly named was released.

Running in parallel to the Marines’ criminal trial were legal proceedings relating to the anonymity of the defendants. In the autumn of 2012, Judges Advocate Elsom and Blackett issued anonymity orders for the Marine defendants due to the risk that, once named, the defendants would become targets for terrorists, because they had killed terrorists and disrupted their operations against the British people and the West. The move had been opposed by elements of the UK media. A lawyer for the Press Association argued that anonymity orders should not be issued in this case because, firstly, British military award recipients named in the media had not been previously targeted; and, secondly, that the names of those British service personnel investigated following the death of Baha Mousa had not been similarly protected. The 2012 anonymity orders were upheld at the beginning of the trial in October 2013. The order was lifted for Blackman (hitherto Marine A) on 5 December 2013 by the High Court. The most senior figure involved in that verdict was Lord Chief Justice Lord Thomas. The same ruling had it that the identities of Marines B and C also be revealed unless they submit an appeal to the Supreme Court. No such appeal was lodged within the set deadline, and so, on 19 December 2013, Marine B was named as Corporal Christopher Glyn Watson and Marine C was named as Marine Jack Alexander Hammond. The anonymity of Marines D and E was upheld on 19 December “pending any further order by the Judge Advocate General.”

Jeff Blackett also restricted public access to the evidence used at the trial, releasing on 8 November stills, audio clips and transcripts from the serviceman’s video that was played to the court-martial board, but ruling that the full video itself not be released, since doing so “would increase the threat of harm to British service personnel.” On 5 December 2013, the Court Martial Appeal Court upheld the earlier decisions prohibiting the release of the video footage of the attack and some of the stills from it. The Court stated, however, that the prohibition was to prevent the material being used for radicalisation, rather than it posing a risk to the life of the defendants.

The legal position in the case of Alexander Blackman. In law, whenever the charge is murder, it automatically carries within it the ability for a jury (or court martial panel) to return a verdict of “Not guilty of murder but guilty of manslaughter.”  Manslaughter is of course a serious but lesser offence which unlike murder carries no mandatory life sentence. The sentence for manslaughter is discretionary and on extraordinarily mitigating facts such as occurred here, would have justified a short sentence at worst (say three years maximum of which there is automatic release after one half of the term has been served) and possibly even an entirely suspended prison sentence. If manslaughter was substituted here, Alexander Blackman could be released there and then from court because of the time he will already have served by the date of that hearing. So all is to play for in real terms.

There were here 3 possible routes to manslaughter. None were raised by the prosecution, defence or the Judge Advocate General (JAG). The law says it is the duty of the JAG to direct the jury on all verdicts reasonably open to them regardless of whether the prosecution or defence choose to raise the issue. Here the JAG failed to do so. This very good point was also never raised at the appeal against conviction. The three routes to manslaughter were:

1. “Loss of control”– a temporary “snapping” of Blackman by reason of the cumulative stress and strain of six months of appalling and provocative battlefield conditions, let alone the firefight which happened minutes earlier.

2. “Unlawful act manslaughter” – Blackman said he had desecrated a body he believed to be dead. If in the course of doing so in fact a man died, that could have been unlawful act manslaughter as lawyers call it. The court martial board was never left to consider this route to manslaughter either.

3. “Diminished Responsibility” – this would have needed psychiatric evidence which was never even sought by his defence team before conviction. In reality it should have been easy to obtain and even now it may be possible. Battlefield fatigue and post-traumatic stress disorder are recognised mental illnesses today. If either could have been shown, the argument would be that his mental responsibility for the crime was thus diminished, hence manslaughter not murder.

Alexander Blackman states that he was never told about the manslaughter options by his previous legal team, despite asking the question himself. Following the successful campaign led by Frederick Forsyth and the Daily Mail, generous support from the British public has enabled a new legal team to be appointed. They are now exploring in addition with a competent pathologist (none was called for the defence at trial) whether there may be further evidence to suggest the insurgent was already dead. They are also exploring with a leading psychiatrist whether there might be evidence which would have justified a diminished responsibility defence being run on the basis of battlefield combat stress syndrome, which itself could have reduced murder to manslaughter. Again, inexplicably, no psychiatrist was called by the defence at trial nor was a report commissioned until after the verdict. Note: The judge’s recommendation after the appeal is that Al Blackman must serve 8 years before parole can be considered. That does not of course mean he will be released straight after 8 years are served. The Parole Board may not even meet on his case until longer; they may refuse it first time round, which often happens.

Daily Mail Coverage

The Daily Mail reported on October 29th that Military chiefs are plotting to cover up a damning report that could help free a Royal Marine jailed for murder.

Evidence casting doubt on Sergeant Alexander Blackman’s conviction for killing a Taliban insurgent is to be ‘swept under the carpet’, the Mail can reveal.

His fight for justice was boosted by a huge wave of public support yesterday after we revealed that crucial facts were deliberately withheld from his court martial in 2013. The Mail has already reported that:

  • The Afghan fighter that Blackman shot had been mortally wounded;
  • Two of his comrades had been blown up, a third tortured and the limbs of mutilated soldiers hung from a tree by the Taliban;
  • His commanding officer resigned in disgust at his treatment.

And yesterday it also emerged that:

  • The jury trying Blackman was split 5-2 and put under pressure to convict;
  • Some were desk-job sailors without experience of battle;
  • The defence team blundered by failing to fight for a manslaughter conviction;
  • The Royal Navy is plotting a ‘media strategy’ to hush up findings of failures by senior commanders;
  • Retired military chiefs including Lord Dannatt called for the case to be re-examined.

Last night Blackman’s wife Claire said she was overwhelmed by the response from the public so far, and immensely proud of her husband, who had been made to ‘pay terribly for one mistake in the heat of battle.’ She added: ‘This was war. This man would gladly have tortured my husband before killing him if the roles had been reversed.’

Frederick Forsyth said, “The British people never cease to amaze me. I have long said we have here a great country and a great people. Only the new Establishment lets us down. The people show themselves generous, compassionate and willing to help someone subjected to misery, whether by Nature or Man. In the case of Sgt Alexander Blackman, they have donated to ensure he gets the best legal representation available for his appeal. And that is just what he will get. So thanks to you all.”

Sir Tim Rice, the West End lyricist who is another patron of the Sgt Blackman campaign, said, “It is not unusual for the British public to give generously to a worthwhile appeal, but I am amazed by the extent of the instant and massive response to that for Sgt Al Blackman. Thanks to thousands of supporters from many walks of life the injustice done to a man who has bravely given so much of his life to his country will soon be fully investigated.”

A third patron, retired Director of Special Forces Major General John Holmes, said, “The scale of the response has been quite humbling. Not only has it been financially quite extraordinary, but it is also the small notes and letters that accompany the donations that make you realise how the appeal has touched a chord with the British public. Sergeant Blackman can draw great strength from knowing that the British public are on his side.”

The Shinwar massacre

usarmy11On 4 March 2007, U.S. Marines killed at least 12 civilians and injured 33 in Shinwar district, Nangrahar,  in a response to a bomb ambush. The event became known as the ‘Shinwar massacre.’ The 120 member Marine unit responsible for the attack were ordered to leave the country by Army Major General Frank Kearney, because the incident damaged the unit’s relations with the local Afghan population.

The 2007 Shinwar shooting, also known as the Shinwar massacre, was the killing of a number of Afghan people on 4 March 2007, in the village of Spinpul, in the Shinwar District of the Nangarhar Province of Afghanistan. United States Marines, fleeing the scene of a car bomb attack and ambush by Afghan militants, fired on people and vehicles surrounding them, according to initial reports killing as many as 19 civilians and injuring around 50 more. The exact casualty figures have not been firmly established.

The United States Marine Corps conducted an internal inquiry from January 2008. In May that year it exonerated the Marine Corps unit, determining that it had acted “appropriately and in accordance with the rules of engagement”. The report was condemned by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, and by the United Nations mission in Afghanistan. Further revelations in 2010 led employees of Amnesty International and the International Bar Association to assert that there was prima facie, or superficial evidence that international humanitarian law had been violated, but could not speculate further without knowing the details of the inquiry.

USMCOn 4 March 2007, Haji Ihsanullah, a member of Hezb-e Islami Khalis (or the Tora Bora Military Front, depending on source),  drove a minivan laden with explosives into one of the vehicles making up a US military convoy, which included either three or six humvees. A US Marine was injured.  Sources differ on whether or not hidden gunmen then also opened fire on the convoy. The US Marines fled the area, firing on some vehicles for between 6 and 16 miles while driving along the Afghan street.

According to several witnesses and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, the US Marines’ response to the car bombing included indiscriminate firing at passing civilians on the busy highway. They asserted that elderly men, women and children were killed. Akhtyar Gul, a local reporter who witnessed the shooting, claimed that the Marines sprayed civilians with machine gun fire even though the Marines were not under attack. These assertions would be disputed during the subsequent US Marine Corps court of inquiry.

According to Associated Press and Afghan journalists, US troops confiscated photos and videos of the incident and its aftermath. A freelance photographer working for the Associated Press claimed that two Marines and a translator asked him: “Why are you taking pictures? You don’t have permission.” Another photographer claimed that he had been told by US troops, through an interpreter: “Delete them [your photos], or we will delete you.”

Afghan response

karzaiThe killings were followed by widespread protests across Afghanistan and drew sharp criticism from President Hamid Karzai. The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission’s report asserted that: “In failing to distinguish between civilians and legitimate military targets, the US Marine Corps Special Forces employed indiscriminate force. Their actions thus constitute a serious violation of international humanitarian standards.”

Aftermath

kearneyMajor General Frank Kearney, head of the US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), ordered the entire 120-member unit out of Afghanistan pending an investigation into the incident, and announced that there was no evidence supporting the Marines’ story that they had come under fire. The unit’s commander and senior officer were relieved of their duties on 3 April 2007 and reassigned to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. Kearney’s order to have the unit depart Afghanistan was later found by the Department of Defense’s Inspector General to be within his authority, and reasonable. Compensation payments of $2,000 each were paid to the families of those killed or wounded; overall more than fifty Afghans received compensation payments.

Investigation and inquiry

The shooting came under investigation by both Afghanistan  and the United States. On 12 April 2007, an initial investigation headed by a United States Air Force colonel was conducted, endorsed by a United States Army general. It determined that the Marines used “excessive force when they killed civilians after a suicide bombing”, and referred the case to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service for a criminal inquiry; the investigation occurred two months after the shootings, with investigators only able to study the site of the shooting for an hour. The The New York Times of 20 April 2007 included an article asserting that the shooting was similar to the Haditha killings.

The Pentagon issued a formal apology for the incident on 7 May 2007.  “This was a terrible, terrible mistake,” said US Army Colonel John Nicholson, “and my nation grieves with you for your loss and suffering. We humbly and respectfully ask for your forgiveness.”

Nicholson commanded Task Force Spartan, whose area of operation as defined by ISAF Regional Command East included the area of the shooting. This was dismissed as premature by General James T. Conway, Commandant of the Marine Corps, who said: “I would just as soon that no one … apologize or talk about ‘terrible, terrible mistakes’.”

James Mattis, then a Marine Corps lieutenant general, ordered a court of inquiry to be held. The court at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina formally investigated the incident in January 2008, hearing from more than 50 witnesses, including Afghans, over 17 days. Much of the testimony was characterized as “vague and contradictory.” The four Marines who had fired their weapons did not testify—according to Declan Walsh, writing in The Guardian of London, “because they had not been granted immunity from prosecution.”

During the court of inquiry, Colonel Nicholson stated the Marines did not coordinate their operations with his command when conducting operations, and that the Marines’ failure to remain at the scene of the attack amounted to failing to “preserve evidence,” according to David Zucchino of the Los Angeles Times. Marines who had been present testified that they had been forced to leave the scene by a “complex ambush.” One Marine testified that not all Marines in the convoy returned fire against those ambushing the convoy—return fire, he said, was limited to some gunners. This Marine elaborated that the gunners were ordered to cease fire some minutes later by a Marine captain. Testimony by Afghans, including a Afghan police lieutenant colonel, and a 1980’s mujahideen commander, contradicted the testimony of the Marines. Nicholson testified that thirty minutes after US Marines left the area, other US troops arrived at the location of the minivan attack and found no dead or wounded Afghans—he speculated that this might be because Afghans bury their dead extremely quickly in line with Islamic tradition.

According to one of the Marines’ defence lawyers, Mark Waple, an investigation by the US Navy estimated that the number of people killed was between five and seven, all adult men; Waple continued that despite the prior claims of massacred women and children, witness statements attested only to a wounded 16-year-old boy and a woman with an injured hand. In May 2008 the court of inquiry “exonerated the Marines”, according to Walsh, concluding that they had “acted appropriately and in accordance with the rules of engagement and tactics, techniques and procedures in place at the time in response to a complex attack.”

Testimony to the inquiry was classified and not released, and the 12,000-page report was also unpublished. In March 2015, excerpts of the “key conclusions” were published in the Military Times. No criminal charges were brought, although “some officers” did receive an “administrative reprimand.” The court of inquiry recommended judicial and or administrative actions be taken upon two Marine captains and two enlisted Marines. The verdict infuriated the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. Kubra Aman, a member of the Afghan House of Elders from Nangarhar, said, “I am very angry. This is too much.”  

The decision was also criticised by the United Nations mission in Afghanistan, whose spokesperson Aleem Siddique said, “It is disappointing that no one has been held accountable for these deaths.”. The two Marine captains were later “cleared of wrongdoing,” according to the Marine Corps Times. More than a year after the court of inquiry concluded, Marines involved received Combat Action Ribbons, and an injured turret gunner was awarded the Purple Heart.

In 2010, Mark Ellis of the International Bar Association told Channel 4 News of the UK that that based on documents released by Wikileaks, “there is prima facie evidence from the military log that suggests the troops could be investigated for war crimes” but that legal hurdles would probably prevent a hearing before the International Criminal Court (ICC). Sam Zafiri of Amnesty International took a similar line, saying that “There is certainly prima facie evidence of violations of international humanitarian law … It’s not so much about whether an investigation into what happened at Jalalabad is re-opened, but rather publish what the US military did investigate, who they talked to, what were the results and how did they arrive at the decision they came to.”

In March 2015, the Military Times published a series of articles about the incident, written by Andrew deGrandpre. Fred Galvin, who commanded the Marine unit at the time of the incident, said that despite being cleared by the court of inquiry, he and his men thought that their side of the story had not been properly publicised, and that they still felt they were stigmatised as a result of the accusations.

Visiting Sgt. Blackman

Scan_20151029 (2)Wearing another hat, the Editor has written extensively on the vagaries of the law, abuse of process, gender bias and political fixes in the realm of Family Law  to suit the establishment, in breach of individual freedom and rights of men in particular in his book, ‘Saving The Situation,’ published in 1996. In work carried out by the Editor and his team it was estimated that 100,000 suffered from evidence being ‘Removed by Consent.’ Not his consent!

What happened to Sgt. Blackman is akin to this Abuse of Process to suit an Establishment view of the matter; it is also a breach of the European Law of Human Rights, ‘Right To Life,’ clause.  To that end the Editor is applying to visit Sgt. Blackman in gaol to discuss his Appeal and what actually happened on that dark day in 2011.

(Sources: Wikipedia, Daily Mail)

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