Thousands protest against prosecution of ‘Soldier F’ over Bloody Sunday deaths

Thousands of former servicemen brought parts of central London to a standstill in protest against the prosecution of “Soldier F” for his alleged role in the Bloody Sunday massacre.

Organiser Gavin Wragg described the decision to prosecute the ex-soldier as “one of the crimes of the century”.

Thousands of ex-soldiers and their supporters, including hundreds of bikers, answered his call to converge on Whitehall to form a human chain around Westminster on Saturday.

Soldier F, who cannot be named for legal reasons, is the only person from the 1st Battalion Parachute Regiment ever to face trial over the deaths of 13 civil rights protesters and one passer-by in Londonderry in January 1972.

Soldier F protest
Hundreds of motorbikes took part in the protest (Aaron Chown/PA)

He is charged with the murder of William McKinney, 27, and 22-year-old James Wray, and the attempted murder of four other men – Joseph Friel, Michael Quinn, Joe Mahon and Patrick O’Donnell.

He faces a final charge of “attempted murder of a person or persons unknown”.

The Saville Report, an inquiry set up by then prime minister Tony Blair in 1998 which published its findings in 2010, found Mr Wray had been shot in the back while fleeing and then shot again as he lay dying, while Mr McKinney was also shot in the back.

Soldier F learned he was to be prosecuted in March of this year and the case is currently in its preliminary stages in Northern Ireland.

Soldier F protest
Protesters converged on Trafalgar Square (Aaron Chown/PA)

Speaking to the PA news agency about the prosecution, Mr Wragg said: “It’s appeasement by the British Government, it’s just to appease the IRA – we’ve got a peace process with Northern Ireland and all the terrorists were pardoned, they were all set free for the horrific crimes they committed.

“Now we are suddenly prosecuting only British soldiers.

“You either have a peace agreement for all or nobody.”

Soldier F, who is now in his 70s, was not present on the march and has chosen not to get involved in the movement.

However, 78-year-old Dennis Hutchings – another former soldier facing trial for a killing during the Troubles – was present and rode atop an armoured car during the march down Whitehall.

Soldier F protest
Dennis Hutchings, centre, rode on top of an armoured car for the protest (Tess De La Mare/PA)

Mr Hutchings is charged in connection with the death of 27-year-old John Patrick Cunningham, who was fatally shot in the back fleeing an army patrol in County Tyrone in 1974.

The former soldier, who served with the Life Guards, is accused of the attempted murder and attempted grievous bodily harm of Mr Cunningham, who suffered from learning difficulties.

Another former soldier said: “It’s not just about one individual, it’s about many individuals and about the future.

“It’s not just about Northern Ireland but any conflict we’ve been involved in and could be involved in.”

The 47-year-old, who served in the Army between 1990 and 1998, added: “Why should we, when we’re following orders, face prosecution?”

His friend, 58, who served in Northern Ireland in the Navy in the 1990s, said: “What really gets me is that they’ve brought back Diplock courts – Soldier F is facing trial by a single judge without a jury and no-one should ever be tried without a jury.

Soldier F protest
Demonstrators set up camp at Wellington Arch, and planned to spend the night there (Tess De La Mare/PA)

“It’s a political thing rather than a justice thing. He’s been thrown to the wolves.”

After the protest, many of those involved migrated to a makeshift camp by Wellington Arch where they were planning to spend the night.

One RAF veteran, who served in Northern Ireland in the 1990s, said: “We don’t agree with [Soldier F’s prosecution] seeing as all the IRA and other paramilitaries got off scot-free.”

Referring to his time in Northern Ireland during the peace process, he said: “Killings there were a daily occurrence, the [Northern Irish] lived with it day in, day out, but on the mainland you didn’t hear about it unless it was a major attack.”

A second man, 62, who served in Northern Ireland in the third battalion of the Light Infantry in 1975 and 1976, described his tour in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday aged just 18.

Bloody Sunday prosecutions
Soldier F is accused of the murder of James Wray and William McKinney, pictured during a vigil in west Belfast (Niall Carson/PA)

He said: “Kids coming out of school would throw stones, bottles and bricks, and obviously the IRA would target us along with any other paramilitaries.”

Police in Northern Ireland are reviewing all murder cases, considering opportunities for forensic evidence and availability of witnesses when deciding which to tackle first.

Detectives have said they do not prioritise military cases, which account for approximately 30% of the workload. At least six former military personnel have been prosecuted in recent years.

Of 26 prosecution cases brought since 2011 involving legacy issues, 21 involved republican and loyalist paramilitaries, recent research showed.

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