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Fresh Deepcut inquest to examine possible ‘bullying’ of tragic soldier

Private Sean Benton was found with five bullets in his chest in June 1995 shortly after he had been told he was to be discharged from the Army.

A fresh inquest into the death of a vulnerable young soldier at Deepcut barracks will find out if he was hounded to death by “bullying and harassment”.

But relatives of Private Sean Benton, 20, who have campaigned for 20 years over his death, have raised concern that questioning of a retired sergeant over his conduct may be curbed, and called on a jury to decide the case.

Mr Benton, from Hastings, East Sussex, was found with five bullets in his chest in June 1995, shortly after he had been told he was to be discharged from the Army. He was the first of four young soldiers to die of gunshot wounds at the Surrey barracks between 1995 and 2002.

A Royal Military Police investigation led to an initial inquest finding of suicide even though no evidence was given about his experiences at Deepcut.

At a fresh pre-inquest hearing at the Old Bailey, a 10-point list was presented widening the scope to look at all the circumstances of his death. It includes the details of how he died and whether there was “any third party action” involved in the death.

Mr Benton’s “state of mind” will be probed, as well as how he was assessed and disciplined during his Army career and what impact that may have had on him. The management of his discharge and its effect was within the inquest scope, as well as whether he was “subjected to bullying and harassment at Deepcut”.

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Linda Benton with a picture of her dead son Sean (PA)

The inquest will look at any “systemic shortcomings” in relation to supervising trainees and managing their mental health. Potential failings in the areas of guard duty and provision of weapons would also be examined, the court heard.

Retired Sergeant Andrew Gavaghan will be among 120 witnesses called to give evidence either in person or in a written statement.

But Paul Greaney QC, for the family, said: “There will be an attempt made on behalf of Sgt Gavaghan and MoD to restrict questions of his conduct only in respect of Sean himself. On behalf of the family, our submission is we must examine allegations of abuse or bullying of any recruit, not just Sean.”

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Relatives hold picture boards of the soldiers who died while serving at Deepcut Barracks (Gareth Fuller/PA)

Arguing for a jury inquest, Mr Greaney said: “A jury would not only actually be independent of the state but would be, critically, seen to be independent of the state. Sean died whilst under the control of the state in circumstances in which his movements and environment were tightly controlled by the state.”

Nicholas Moss, for the MoD, argued a “very long and detailed investigation” by Surrey Police and a careful Deepcut review had produced no evidence anyone fired at Mr Benton. A lawyer for Mr Gavaghan opposed having a jury and said there had already been “layer upon layer” of adverse media coverage surrounding Deepcut.

Coroner Peter Rook QC said he would rule on having a jury by the end of the month.

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