Saturday, 19 September 2015

Lord Burnett (former 42 Cdo RM Officer) backs Sgt Blackman. Welcome aboard

#justiceformarinea Lord Burnett's speech House of Lords 15th September 2015

Lord Burnett as a young Royal Marine Office with 3 troop, E Company, 42 Commando in Borneo in 1965/66, Sematan, Div 1. Author is the ugly bastard in the front

5.05 pm

Lord Burnett (LD): My Lords, I also am grateful to the Minister of State for initiating this debate. It is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Selkirk of Douglas, who now has very close Royal Marine connections. I had the honour to serve in the Royal Marines. I draw the Committee’s attention to my entries in the Members’ register of interests.

I intend to confine my speech to the predicament of Sergeant Alexander Blackman, Royal Marines, who I believe is the victim of a terrible miscarriage of justice. I have given the Minister’s office notice of my intention and the fact that I would be raising this matter. I also wish to put on record my gratitude, and that of many others, to Mr Frederick Forsyth for his immense and invaluable contribution to this campaign; to the Daily Mail and its defence and campaigns team for their tireless research and work on this campaign and their wholehearted commitment to it; and to Mrs Claire Blackman, Sergeant Blackman’s loyal, steadfast and courageous wife.

Obviously I was not present during the events that gave rise to Sergeant Blackman’s court martial, and I did not attend the hearing. I have visited Sergeant Blackman in prison and spoken to him for some hours. He believes that he shot a dead man. Desecrating a dead body is an offence against the Geneva conventions but it is not murder.

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To become a senior non-commissioned officer in the Royal Marines is an immense achievement. Being accepted for training in the Royal Marines is extremely competitive. The training is rigorous and long; to pass out from the commando school and King’s Squad will be the proudest day of any Royal Marine’s life and that of his family. Sergeant Blackman would in due course have been selected and passed a junior command course to become a corporal, then, some years later, a senior command course to become a sergeant. These courses are long and also rigorous. He as an individual would have been closely monitored and observed throughout. The same would be true in his lengthy specialist qualification training.

Sergeant Blackman’s 2011 six-month tour of Afghanistan with 42 Commando Royal Marines was his sixth deployment on active service. Deployments of six months are the norm. This is certainly not a complaint; that is what the Royal Marine commandos are for, and for six months Sergeant Blackman commanded an outpost right on the front line. He led a section of Marines. He was more than capable of doing so; he was an experienced and respected leader. On 15 September 2011, insurgents were spotted and an Apache helicopter was summoned from Camp Bastion. One insurgent was located by the Apache crew, who fired 139 rounds of 30-millimetre cannon. The crew believed that the insurgent simply could not have survived such a fearsome barrage. In 50 degrees centigrade of heat, Sergeant Blackman led a patrol to assess the damage. They found an armed insurgent either mortally wounded or dead, and Sergeant Blackman was filmed by a helmet-mounted video camera shooting him in the chest. Sergeant Blackman’s words were also recorded. He believed that the insurgent was dead and has expressed shame for what he said. He has explained his words as foolish bravado and dark humour, used by war-zone troops as a coping mechanism.

It is difficult to describe the extent of the stress and demands made of our combat troops in Afghanistan. These are the troops in the front line, constantly shot at, living, or more accurately existing, in the most basic conditions, and in the searing heat, often with little or no sleep. These men are constantly exhausted. This goes on for day after day, week after week, month after month. Sergeant Blackman and his men were in constant mortal danger. Nevertheless, our troops must in all circumstances comply with the law. However, the law itself recognises that stress, provocation and other factors should be taken into account in determining criminal liability.

I usually carry with me a small card entitled “The Commando Mindset”. On one side, it says:

“Be the first to understand; the first to adapt and respond; and the first to overcome”.

On the reverse are “The Commando Values”:

“Excellence. Strive to do better. Integrity. Tell the truth. Self-discipline. Resist the easy option. Humility. Respect the rights, diversity and contribution of others”.

Under that is “The Commando Spirit”:

“Courage. Get out front and do what is right. Determination. Never give up. Unselfishness. Oppo first; Team second; Self last”.


“Cheerfulness. Make humour the heart of morale”.

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I wish to say a few words about unselfishness and about:

“Oppo first; Team second; Self last”.

One of the main pillars of the culture of the Royal Marines is team spirit and the highest esprit de corps. In the end, you rely on your comrades for your life and they rely on you for theirs. Shortly before the events I have described, two men from 42 Commando were killed by insurgents, their bodies were desecrated and their limbs hung in the trees. This non-isolated event, and many others, would have had a profound effect on the entire unit.

I understand that new evidence is available. I also understand that whenever the charge of murder is made, 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 a serious, but lesser, offence. Unlike murder, it carries no mandatory life sentence. My understanding is that this was never raised at the court martial by the defence, the prosecution or the judge. Given at the very least the extraordinary mitigating facts in this case, even a manslaughter conviction would have resulted in a far shorter sentence than the minimum of eight years that Sergeant Blackman is now serving. These facts alone, and other new evidence, should justify an immediate review of this case by the Criminal Cases Review Commission.

I wish to say just a few words about courts martial generally. My noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford, who I am delighted to see is in the Room today, and others, including the Judge Advocate General, have criticised the fact that a simple majority at a court martial can convict a person. In Sergeant Blackman’s case, five of the panel found him guilty and two found him not guilty. That ratio would be insufficient to convict in a civilian criminal court. It also appears that a number of members of the panel had not been on active service or had ever heard a shot fired in anger. That goes against the entire ethos of courts martial. You are supposed to be tried by your peers who fully understand through experience all the surrounding circumstances. No one who has not served through the hell and horrors of the front line in Afghanistan or similar war conditions can hope to appreciate the stresses, pressures, exhaustion and danger that will afflict even the strongest human being. I therefore ask the Minister to confirm that all departments of state will expeditiously co-operate with Sergeant Blackman’s defence team and provide the necessary evidence, including reports held by the Government, in order to assist his case. I would also like to ask the Minister to review the court martial system in the light of the comments I and many others have made.

Finally, I thank not only the members of the extensive Royal Marines family for their support, but also the millions of other citizens throughout the United Kingdom and beyond who support Sergeant Blackman. We owe it to our fighting men who continuously and selflessly protect us to fight for them in their time of need. There has been a dreadful miscarriage of justice, and I and millions of others call on the Criminal Cases Review Commission to ensure that justice is done.

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5.18 pm

Baroness Fookes (Con): My Lords, I was not aware that the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, was going to raise this case. He has put it most powerfully, and perhaps I may at least join with him in asking my noble friend the Minister to look seriously at all the implications. I do so with a reasonable amount of knowledge of the Royal Marines through my life as a Member of Parliament with Royal Marines stationed both in my own constituency and close to it. I have the greatest admiration for them as an elite fighting force, so I hope that justice will be done in this case. In any case, it is important, when we look at defence in general, to realise how important it is that forces such as the Royal Marines are used fully because they are so flexible. When we do not know, as we have all discussed in the debate today, what threats may come to us, that is invaluable.

I am grateful to the Minister for introducing this debate and for stating so categorically that it is the first duty of any Government to provide adequate defence and security for the realm. I fear he may need to repeat that in other places because too often it is not featured and is forgotten. It is perhaps ironic that the importance of the decision about the size of the House has attracted so much attention that we have had to be decanted into the Moses Room so that we would not start our debate at 10 pm. Need I say more on that point?