Justice for Alexander Blackman. But shouldn’t Fallon have been in the dock too?

Claire Blackman, the wife of Alexander Blackman, speaking outside the Royal Courts of Justice (Photo: PA)

 By Daniel Margrain

On March 28, 2017 justice was seen to have been done at the Court of Appeal in London where the murder case of Royal Marine, Alexander Blackman, was reduced to manslaughter. Back in September, 2015, the Daily Mail reported on a leaked dossier that contained crucial evidence withheld from Blackman’s court martial into the killing of a mortally wounded Taliban insurgent in Afghanistan.

Military chiefs solely blamed Blackman for the killing. However, the report into the incident says that his over-stretched unit was being pushed to be too aggressive; that his senior officer was not prepared for the demands of the war zone and that there were signs that Blackman’s unit was cracking up. All these things, the leaked report says, were missed by commander’s.

If not for the investigative work of the Daily Mail and the informant who unearthed these details, none of the MOD’s censoring of the admission of command failings in Helmand province would have come to light. What the paper revealed, is that the MOD conducted a report into their own actions and put a black line through anything that didn’t make them look good.

Warning signs

The MOD report said that the supervision of the commanding officer where Blackman and his men were based was insufficient to identify a number of warning signs that could have indicated that they were showing evidence of moral regression, psychological strain and fatigue. I think you and I would show evidence of moral regression if somebody was shooting at us while we were at work.

The Daily Mail says this shows that high-ranking officers were partly responsible for the extreme state that Blackman was in when he pulled the trigger. The report, which formed a major plank of his battle for justice, was debated in Parliament on September 16, 2015. The papers discovery of the full executive summary of the report was followed by minsters’ caving in to demands from Blackman’s lawyers to have confidential access to all its 50 pages. What was the MOD trying to protect?

It’s not for the benefit of the British public that this report was blacked out, but for the benefit of pen-pushers in the MOD. “Blackman and his troops were at breaking point”, says the Mail in their report after a “tour from hell in Hellmand province that had seen comrades tortured and killed.”

But the Daily Mail investigation discovered that Blackman’s court martial was blocked from hearing the truth about these mitigating circumstances. The executive summary of the Navy’s report into the shooting that was leaked to the Mail  was marked “official-sensitive”. It lays bare how commanders were blind to the psychological strain and fatigue endured by Blackman and his men.

Censored

The fact that the damning conclusion is blotted out with censors’ black ink illustrates how the UK government refuse to acknowledge that there are any systemic problems within the corridors of power. On the contrary, they have shifted criticism from attributing blame to those within the high chain of command towards the whistle blower and the journalists who exposed the scandal.

Meanwhile, in responding to a question in the House of Commons from Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon said the estimated number of ISIS fighters killed as a result of UK strikes from September 2014 to 31 August 2015 was around 330. “This figure is highly approximate,” he said, “not least given the absence of UK ground troops in a position to observe the effects of strike activity.” He added that he believed no civilians had been injured or killed by such strikes. “

Fallon effectively admits that the British government doesn’t have the faintest idea how many people had been killed by British airstrikes in the year up to 31 August 2015. If he doesn’t know how many had been killed, it follows that he doesn’t know who had been killed and in what circumstances. Therefore, he is unable to satisfactorily conclude, as he did, that it was his belief that “no civilians had been injured or killed by such strikes”.

Imminent threat

Fallon’s inconsistent line of argumentation followed the extrajudicial murder of two British citizens in Syria justified on absurd grounds that the alleged terrorists presented an imminent threat to the population in Britain thousands of miles away. The notion the government acted in self-defense in this case is preposterous. What Fallon’s comments, on the one hand, and the initial conviction of Blackman for murder on the other highlight, is the contradictory approaches the state takes towards the crime.

Logically, it’s only possible to claim you are under imminent threat from terrorists if you are able to identify the nature of the said threat. The only way to do that is if one is able to identify those who are allegedly threatening you. How then, can the government claim self defense under such vague circumstances? Dropping bombs from a great height in order to supposedly ‘target’ terrorists can never be precise despite the propaganda claims to the contrary. Killing in this way is necessarily indiscriminate.

How can it be the case that commanding officers who were partly responsible for the extreme state of mind of one of their underlings, and a foreign secretary who oversees them all, get a free pass for murder, while one of the men at the bottom of the chain of command who pulled the trigger on a foe in the battlefield while under enormous stress, was initially sentenced to life imprisonment for the crime?

It’s reasonable to assume that there are certain circumstances in which somebody on the battlefield who is showing evidence of moral regression, psychological strain and fatigue, and whose life would almost always be under imminent threat, could be justified in killing an enemy combatant. But it’s impossible to envisage the mitigating circumstances by which it could be justified for others higher up the chain of command who oversee or give orders to others who kill by pressing buttons on computer screens.

Telling

It’s perhaps telling that at the time of Blackman’s conviction for murder, not a single political establishment figure within the Cabinet came forward to publicly criticise the decision. On the contrary, the then PM David Cameron, prior to a visit to see the Afghan president, defended the decision of the court to imprison Blackman for life.

This is a classic example of the elite class closing ranks in order to deflect the massive crimes of the establishment onto soldiers on the ground. I, for one, am glad that justice was finally done at the Court of Appeal. The question is, when can we expect to see the likes of Michael Fallon stand in front of the judges to face justice?

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