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Belfast protest over 'witch-hunt' against Troubles soldiers - where is the justice? asks MLA Doug Beattie

By Jonny Bell

Veterans of the Northern Ireland Troubles and of conflict around the world held a protest in Belfast over what they describe as a "witch-hunt" against soldiers.

Justice for Northern Ireland Veterans organised the event on Friday morning.

There were similar rallies planned for London and Glasgow by a campaign group formed in response to a number of recent prosecutions of former soldiers in relation to incidents during the region's sectarian conflict.

Addressing the crowd at Belfast City Hall, MLA and former soldier Doug Beattie said it "wasn't fair" a soldier prosecuted for an offence prior to 1998 would be facing a lifetime in prison when those convicted of terrorist offences would be jailed for a maximum of two years under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

"Where is the soldiers' right to life? Where are their investigations?" He said.

He said those protesting the rally had the right to do so as soldiers "had fought for that very right".

"We all deserve justice," he added.

"But let's not focus purely on the military and what we did."

Dissident group Saoradh Béal Feirste paraded from Castle Street to Donegall Place, where it was stopped by a police line, just short of the veterans' rally.

Saoradh, which means liberation in Irish, was formed in 2016 with the backing of dissident republican prisoners. It counts high-profile Co Armagh republican Colin Duffy among its supporters. The hard-line republican group organised its own march against the "presence of a British Army parade in Belfast".

Ahead of the event, PSNI Superintendent Melanie Jones said an "appropriate and proportionate policing operation" will be put in place to ensure Parades Commission rulings are upheld.

Last year, two former soldiers were told they will be prosecuted for murder over the 1972 death of official IRA commander Joe McCann. Another prominent case involves retired soldier Dennis Hutchings. The 75-year-old is to face trial accused of attempting to cause grievous bodily harm in relation to a fatal shooting in 1974.

Hutchings, from Torpoint in Cornwall, is due to address the veterans' rally in London.

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