Troubles soldiers sent 1,300 letters sparking fresh claims of 'witch-hunt'
But families of those killed slam ‘lack of respect’
More than 1,300 letters have been sent to veteran soldiers in the last six years seeking information on Troubles-era deaths.
Former troops, some in their 70s and 80s, have been contacted about 40 historic incidents dating back to the 1970s.
They include investigations into cases such as Bloody Sunday and Ballymurphy, and various other disputed killings.
At least 1,381 such letters have been issued by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) since 2013.
It has led to fresh claims of a witch-hunt against ex-soldiers.
Figures from the MoD show:
- 154 letters were sent last year, and 11 so far this year.
- 455 letters were issued in 2013, 250 in 2014, 288 in 2015, and 223 in 2016.
- 368 of the letters relate to to the Bloody Sunday shootings in 1972, and 297 are linked to the Ballymurphy shootings in 1971.
The 1,381 total will be higher because the MoD did not disclose figures for cases where letters sent was less than 10, to protect the identity of the recipients. This is the case in 30 incidents.
In its response, the MoD said the letters relate to "inquests, ongoing criminal enquiries, and investigations by the former PSNI Historical Enquiries Team".
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Campaign group Justice for Northern Ireland Veterans (JFNIV) has recommended that former soldiers who received letters should "throw them in the bin".
Former soldier Alan Barry, a JFNIV member, believes it is unreasonable to expect ex-troops to come forward voluntarily as they "have nothing to gain but everything to lose".
He said: "This is a fishing exercise looking for information. Our advice to veterans remains that they should put these letters in the bin and not co-operate in any shape or form."
Mr Barry says many veterans have been left shocked after receiving the letters.
He added: "These men being called upon to give evidence in an inquiry are in their late 70s. Their memories might be fading or it may have been a traumatic incident that they were involved in. The next thing is that they will be brought forward as part of a criminal investigation, like Dennis Hutchings."
Mr Hutchings (77) from Cornwall, formerly of the Life Guards, is due to stand trial in Belfast. He is charged with the attempted murder of Catholic John Pat Cunningham (27) and attempted grievous bodily harm with intent. He denies the charges.
Mr Cunningham, who had a learning disability and feared anyone in uniform, was shot in the back running from an Army patrol near Benburb, Co Tyrone, in 1974.
The threat of prosecutions has been strongly criticised by Philip Barden, from Devonshires Solicitors in London, who acts for British troops. He claimed it was further evidence of a witch-hunt.
"No attempt has been made to understand the frailty of memory," he said. "Former soldiers are asked to recall events and when they can't, it is suggested they are lying. The whole process is unreliable. I don't think this is about a quest for the truth. It is about revenge and using the criminal process to that end.
"Soldiers who were investigated and released should not be reinvestigated in the absence of new material and reliable evidence. That should be a line that isn't crossed."
However Kate Nash, whose brother William (19) was killed on Bloody Sunday in 1972, says families deserve justice.
In 2010, after the Saville Inquiry report into events that day, Prime Minister David Cameron issued a formal apology to the families in the House of Commons, saying the soldiers' actions were "unjustified and unjustifiable... they were wrong".
Ms Nash said it is appalling veterans were being advised by campaigners to bin the letters.
"They are basically being told to ignore the rule of law, so where is their respect for the criminal justice process?" she said.
"If they were just doing their job to the best of their ability, then why do they seem to be afraid of transparency?
"They are also showing a total lack of respect for the victims."
The SDLP's Dolores Kelly said: "There should be compellability and we would expect former members of the British Army to assist with any inquiry into criminality, especially that of murder.
"Clearly these letters being sent out aren't working and this is a dreadful exercise in time wasting. There ought to be other mechanisms available to ensure that these people are interviewed. Surely it's in the interest of any democratic society to see that justice is served?"
A total of 11 letters have been sent this year in the case of Kathleen Thompson, shot dead in the garden of her Derry home in 1971 during an Army raid.
Letters were issued this year seeking information on the death of Aidan McAnespie, shot as he walked through an Army checkpoint in Co Tyrone in 1988.
The MoD said: "The welfare of our personnel and veterans is of the utmost importance and while the MoD is not responsible for legacy processes, we do assist legal authorities in contacting witnesses to establish relevant facts.
"We also provide legal and pastoral support to any veteran who requires it and often write to veterans to ensure they are aware such support is available."
It said it had a legal obligation to assist with investigations and inquests. These processes are controlled by investigatory and judicial authorities independently of the MoD.
Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson has launched a new team within the MoD to consider fears over whether serving and former personnel are receiving the legal protection they deserve.
Bloody Sunday: Most letters relate to deaths of 14 people slain by Paras
The highest number of letters issued was 368 relating to the deaths of 14 civilians on Bloody Sunday.
Thirteen people were shot dead when paratroopers opened fire on a civil rights march in Londonderry in January 1972. The 14th victim died later.
The landmark Saville Inquiry concluded in 2010 that all those killed or injured were innocent. The then Prime Minister David Cameron issued an official apology in the House of Commons, describing the killings as "unjustified and unjustifiable".
In 2012, the PSNI launched a murder investigation and passed the files to the PPS in 2016. The police concluded that charges related to Bloody Sunday could be brought against 18 ex-soldiers.
Ballymurphy: 297 letters about series of shootings over three days
A total of 297 letters relate to the Ballymurphy Massacre when 10 people were killed over three days in August 1971 following the introduction of internment.
An 11th person died of a heart attack after a confrontation involving a soldier. The shootings took place as the Army moved in to republican strongholds to arrest IRA suspects in the wake of the introduction by the Stormont administration of the controversial policy of internment without trial.
Opening statements in the long-awaited inquests into the deaths will be heard next week, followed by personal statements from relatives of those who died. Evidence in the first inquest will be heard in the week commencing November 28.
James Bradley: 193 were posted to former soldiers over Derry teenager
James (aka Seamus) Bradley was 19 when he was shot in disputed circumstances in Londonderry in 1972.
Mr Bradley was killed by soldiers during Operation Motorman, an Army attempt to gain control of republican areas in Belfast and Derry that had previously been considered no-go zones for the security forces. The Army claimed the teenager was shot while he was in a tree and suffered additional injuries as he fell.
His family have alleged he was killed later, claiming he was taken away in an Army Saracen vehicle. They also allege that he sustained fatal injuries while being subjected to interrogation.
The MoD has issued 193 letters in relation to his killing.
Kathleen Thompson: 76 letters were sent over mother shot dead in garden
A total of 76 MoD letters relate to the shooting of Kathleen Thompson (47) in the back garden of her home in Creggan in Derry in November, 1971.
The mother of six died while an arrest operation was being carried out by the Army at a neighbour's house. She was found by her 12-year-old daughter. In June, the inquest into her death was adjourned to allow the MoD more time to find three soldiers present on the night.
Two months earlier the soldier "likely to have fired the fatal shot" - known as Soldier D - spent three days in the witness box where he insisted he could not remember the names of three other soldiers, referred to as Soldiers A, B and C, who had provided written statements.