Australia asks Britain to review 100-year-old court martial
Wed, Feb 10, 2010

SYDNEY - Australia has sent Britain a petition calling for posthumous pardons for two soldiers court-martialled and executed more than 100 years ago in South Africa, a government spokesman said Wednesday.

The petition asks Britain to review the trials of lieutenants Harry 'Breaker' Morant and Peter Handcock who were found guilty of the murder of 12 prisoners of war in the dying days of the Boer war.

Attorney-General Robert McClelland sent the petition, from military lawyer Commander James Unkles, to Britain's Secretary of State for Defence last week.

"We don't express a view either way on it," McClelland's spokesman said.

"We sent it because we don't have any jurisdiction to issue a pardon or review a case that was made by a foreign government in a foreign country."

Unkles said there were strong grounds for overturning the 1902 verdict against Morant, Handcock and their co-accused George Witton, who had his death sentence commuted, because it contained serious errors.

"The passing of time and the fact that Morant, Handcock and Witton are deceased does not diminish the errors and these injustices must be addressed," Unkles said in a statement.

"The issue is not whether Morant and Handcock shot Boer prisoners, which they admitted to, but whether they were properly represented and Military Law properly and evenly applied."

The petition argues the accused were denied the right to communicate with the Australian government or relatives after their arrest and during their trials and were refused an opportunity to prepare their cases.

"During the trial they were denied an opportunity to have their defence of obedience to superior orders tested in court as Lord Kitchener, the British military Commander-in-Chief ? who allegedly issued orders to the accused to shoot Boer prisoners - declined to appear despite being called," Unkles said.

Morant, who volunteered to fight with the British in South Africa, was born in England but became well known in Australia as a poet and a horsebreaker.

Scottish-born writer Nick Bleszynski, who researched the case for his book 'Shoot Straight, You Bastards!' and helped write the petition, said a pardon for Morant was overdue.

"People have always said, ?Oh, yeah, The Breaker, he didn't get justice'," he told AFP.

"And what we're saying is, it is true. The fact that he was dudded (cheated) by the Poms isn't just a grand old legend, it's actually going to become fact."

The story was made into an internationally released movie "Breaker Morant" starring the late Edward Woodward.

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