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'Sex abuse' claim to be probed in 'fearless' inquest into Deepcut soldier death

Published 01/02/2016

Private Cheryl James died from a gunshot wound at Deepcut Barracks in November 1995
Private Cheryl James died from a gunshot wound at Deepcut Barracks in November 1995

The family of a young soldier found dead at an army barracks have spoken of their relief after a coroner ruled an inquest would examine whether she had been sexually abused before her death.

But coroner Brian Barker QC said he would not consider claims of a "wider culture of sexual abuse" at Deepcut Barracks in Surrey during his investigation into the death of Cheryl James, 18.

A long-awaited fresh inquest began into the death of the teenager who was found with a fatal bullet wound in November 1995 - one of four recruits to die at Deepcut over a seven-year period amid allegations of bullying and abuse.

Mr Barker told Woking Coroner's Court in Surrey that evidence Pte James may have been sexually abused at the time of her death fell within the scope of the inquest.

But it was not within the inquest's remit to consider "a wider culture of sexual abuse at Deepcut Barracks, including the sexually inappropriate treatment of female recruits within the chain of command", the coroner said.

"This is not a public inquiry into the culture at Deepcut in mid-1990s," Mr Barker told the hearing.

"This inquest should be a full, frank and fearless investigation into Cheryl's death, but it does not mean the scope is unlimited.

"Any allegation of previous sexual harassment or abuse will fall out of scope of the inquest and cannot be pursued by questioning."

Mr Barker said his ruling would remain under review "as the evidence develops" during the seven-week inquest.

After the hearing, Emma Norton, a lawyer with human rights organisation Liberty, which is representing Pte James's family, said: "The family are very relieved that any allegations of sexual abuse involving Cheryl are going to be properly investigated.

"They are also very reassured by the coroner's statement today that he's going to keep an open mind on how those matters progress."

At least 10 witnesses have now come forward with allegations of a culture of sexual exploitation at Deepcut, according to human rights organisation Liberty.

Ms Norton said witnesses who had supported claims of sexual exploitation at Deepcut were still likely to be considered if they provided "credible information about Cheryl".

New evidence emerged last month which suggested Pte James may have been sexually exploited by senior ranks shortly before her death.

The teenager, from Llangollen in North Wales, was undergoing initial training when she was found dead with a bullet wound between her right eye and the bridge of her nose in November 1995.

Privates Sean Benton, James Collinson and Geoff Gray also died from gunshot wounds at Deepcut between 1995 and 2002.

In 2014, High Court judges ordered a fresh inquest into Pte James's death after they quashed an open verdict recorded in December 1995. Her body was exhumed in August and a post-mortem examination was carried out by two experts.

In total, more than 100 witnesses are expected to give evidence during the new inquest. The family had requested the scope of the hearing be widened to take account of new evidence which they believe sheds fresh light on Pte James's state of mind.

The inquest will consider whether a third party was involved in her death and what happened on the evening before she died.

It will also address whether there were "shortcomings" with barracks policies on sexual behaviour, supervision of young females, drugs, alcohol and accommodation.

Speaking ahead of the start of the inquest, Pte James's father Des said he hoped for "justice" for his daughter and the other young soldiers who died at Deepcut.

He told the Press Association: "We know the culture at the camp was out of control. There was a drug and alcohol culture.

"The bottom line is a culture was created at the camp which contributed to the death of four people.

"The Deepcut situation is the tip of the iceberg. We have to get to the bottom of what happened. I want justice for all four of them."

The coroner adjourned the inquest until Thursday to allow new forensic and scientific evidence to be reviewed by all interested parties, including Pte James's family, Surrey Police and the Ministry of Defence.

Scientific evidence which was due to be heard this week will also be considered at a later stage, he added.

Mr James listened to the inquest proceedings in court but Pte James's mother Doreen did not attend the hearing.

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