Is Murder really Murder?

The high profile case involving several marines who were involved in an incident where a Taliban fighter was shot ha provoked lots of attention. I am a little concerned at the approach taken by some of the commentators.

Let me start by saying I am not brave enough to have been a soldier in a combat zone (war zone). I cannot begin to imagine the thoughts and emotions that go through a soldier’s mind when engaged in combat with an enemy fighter.

My comments in this thread are not based on any view I have about the legitimacy of the British Army’s involvement in Afghanistan. I am looking at things from a purely legal point of view.

A Royal Marine Sergeant known as Marine A was convicted of murder following his actions in 2011 when he shot and killed an injured Taliban fighter. It would appear that the Sergeant and 2 others came across an injured Taliban fighter and had detained him. He was in effect now a prisoner of war. There was video footage (helmet camera) that was found on a laptop and reported to the police. It appears that one of the 3 retained the footage of the killing.

The Taliban fighter (prisoner) was, as I understand posing no threat to the Marines at this point (no doubt he had previously been trying to kill British soldiers.). The video footage shows Marine A shooting the Afghan prisoner with a 9mm pistol, and saying: “There, shuffle off this mortal coil… It’s nothing you wouldn’t do to us.”

He adds: “Obviously this doesn’t go anywhere fellas. I just broke the Geneva Convention,” to which Marine B replies: “Yeah, roger mate.”

The comments of Marine A make it clear that he knew what he was doing was illegal.

The Geneva Convention

This international agreement concerning the treatment of captured and wounded prisoners of war was first signed in Geneva in 1864. It was later revised in 1949 and consists of four treaties.

Article three of the third convention rules that members of the armed forces who have laid down their arms or who cannot fight due to sickness, wounds or detention should be “treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria”.

To this end, it is prohibited to pass sentences on prisoners or carry out executions without a constituted court judgement. Prisoners may not be harmed, degraded, humiliated or taken hostage.

Under the convention, the wounded and sick should be collected and cared for by an impartial humanitarian body, such as the Red Cross

This was a cold blooded killing on an injured fighter. It was not an act of mercy. It was an extra judicial killing done knowingly in contravention of the Geneva Convention. This was not an act done in the heat of battle. It was from the video footage something done cynically, and Marine A knew when he did the act he was acting in breach of the Geneva Convention.

It is no good complaining about the Geneva Convention. Soldiers know at the time they sign up that their actions in the combat zone are governed by the Geneva Convention whether they like it or not. The Convention has to be obeyed whether the soldiers like it or not.

Once a court or tribunal has convicted  someone of murder ( not manslaughter) then there  is only one sentence available to that body – namely life imprisonment. The body have to set a “tariff” period i.e. the minimum period before that person can be considered for release. However for the rest of their life after release, the murderer will be on licence and liable to recall to prison if they breach the terms of the licence.

It is worth repeating that Marine A was convicted of murder, not manslaughter. The court martial after hearing all the evidence decided that Marine A was guilty of the cold blooded killing of the victim – in short he was guilty of murder.

Retired Major General Julian Thompson has suggested that the court martial should show clemency to Marine A and he should be sentenced to 5 years imprisonment. I wonder if he would be suggesting a lenient sentence for someone convicted of murdering one of his family? What is interesting is that he appears to accept that the killing was indeed murder and was “a totally unforgiveable act”.

Displaying some perverse logic, he suggests that the more experienced a soldier is, the more lenient a court martial should be on sentencing.

Maj Gen Thompson told BBC Radio Four’s Today programme: “I understand that he’s quite an experienced guy. People are talking about him being battle hardened and therefore there is no excuse.

“Well actually it’s the other way round, the more times you do tours in that filthy war, the more pressure there is on you.

I wonder if he thinks that should apply elsewhere? Perhaps he thinks repeat burglars should be treated more leniently than first time offenders.? The experience Marine A has gained should have made him more aware of the serious consequences of his actions. With experience comes additional responsibility, except in the perverse world of Major General Julian Thompson.

Major General Thompson says this was an unforgiveable act and then suggests we should not treat it for sentencing purposes as such.

One of the things we expect of our armed forces, and one of the things they have come to represent is discipline. Sadly Marine A let down his colleagues and his cold blooded summary execution of a wounded prisoner is a stain on the reputation of Britain and its armed forces. It is only right that criminals are punished in accordance with the law. The only sentence available for murder is life imprisonment.

If Major Thompson and others have issues with Marine A being convicted of murder, then they should be campaigning for a re trial, not for a sentence that does not reflect the crime that he is convicted of.

As I said at the start of this post, I am commenting on the legality of the sentencing issues, not the morals of the actions of Marine A.

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