By Matthew Barrett
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Last night an adjournment debate was held on SAS soldier Sergeant Danny Nightingale's court martial and imprisonment after illegally bringing home a pistol given to him by grateful Iraqis. Julian Brazier, himself a former Captain in the SAS, led the debate.
"Military justice was consciously modelled on civilian criminal justice. Originally, 12 officers echoed the 12 householders of repute on a jury, although the number became more commonly five 100 years ago. In the past 20 years, under pressure from the European Court of Human Rights, the system has been turned on its head and today a judge advocate chairs the court with up to five regimental officers who are no longer allowed to ask direct questions."
Mr Brazier outlined the main complaint against the judgement against Sgt Nightingale:
"Danny Nightingale has compelling medical evidence to show that his memory was severely impaired. Do we really believe that the second half of the offence—the transfer of the kit, en masse, to military digs after he had suffered the memory damage and when he was under huge service pressures—passes the service interest test? Is this what the military covenant is about? Does this amount to paying fair regard to the particular pressures of life in special forces and their effect on a man whose memory had been impaired and who had made his way back into action?"
Several Conservative MPs were in attendance to support Sgt Nightingale's case. Patrick Mercer, a former Colonel in the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters Regiment, made an appeal to Oliver Heald, the Solicitor-General (and therefore to Dominic Grieve, the Attorney General):
"I have no doubt that, as Sergeant Nightingale has pleaded guilty, he expects some form of penalty to be imposed. I suggest, however, that that will operationally affect not just our special forces but every soldier, sailor, airman and Royal Marine who puts his or her life on the line for their country and understands that the country owes them a debt of honour. I ask my hon. Friend the Solicitor-General that, should an appeal be submitted, he will not seek to oppose it."
"I mentioned that I had raised the matter twice before on the Floor of the House. On the second occasion, I raised it with the Secretary of State for Justice… He had the common sense to recommend common sense, which is what we are looking for from those on our Front Bench tonight. We are not looking for bone-headed rigidity, which can give not only military justice, but civil justice, an irreparably bad reputation in this country. When the appeal comes, it should not be opposed, and Sergeant Nightingale should be allowed to resume his career and his life with the honour he so richly deserves."
"In light of the significant public concern regarding the circumstances in which Sergeant Nightingale was prosecuted, and given recent questions of judgment at the very top of the Service Prosecuting Authority—the contract of the Director of Service Prosecutions is not to be renewed—it would provide reassurance for all concerned if the Attorney-General reconsiders his decision of this morning not to conduct a review of the application of the service interest test."
"[T]his is a particular offence—that of possessing a prohibited weapon, which we have said as a Parliament is an extremely serious matter. There were exceptional circumstances in this case; this is an exceptional man. However, if we want to challenge the decision of a court once it has been made—not at the beginning, when deciding whether to prosecute, but when the court has found the man guilty and sentenced him to a period of detention in a military facility—then I am afraid that has to be an appeal. That is our process; that is what we do in this country. We do not have politicians telling the independent judiciary—or, indeed, the independent prosecuting authorities—what to do. Much as I have a great deal of sympathy and understand the situation with this officer, I personally do not think that we can go around breaking important rules of that sort in this country."
Yesterday we reported on the bad headlines stacking up for Dominic Grieve in his handling of the case of Sgt Nightingale. This debate in the House will have made the situation just a little worse for him.
The full debate can be read on Hansard.