Editor's Viewpoint: MoD's fishing letters do not serve justice
This newspaper has consistently argued that police should be allowed to follow evidence trails on serious crimes relating to the Troubles. It is also our belief that there should not be an amnesty or statute of limitations on crimes involving state forces.
But that does not mean that we fail to share the frustration of supporters of veteran soldiers who feel that they are the victims of an official witchhunt.
- Troubles soldiers sent 1,300 letters sparking fresh claims of 'witch-hunt'
- Andy Allen: We owe it to ex-soldiers to stand by them now
And that belief will have been strengthened by the revelation in this newspaper today that more than 1,300 letters have been sent to veteran soldiers over the last six years asking for information about 40 historic incidents, including Bloody Sunday and killings in Ballymurphy.
We share the opinion of one campaigner who described the letters sent out by the Ministry of Defence as a fishing exercise. It strikes us as unfair that soldiers, many of them now in their 70s or even older, should receive such letters without warning, asking for information on events which happened 50 years ago.
As many have often pointed out, ex-members of the security forces are at a disadvantage compared to former terrorists. The Army and police kept records unlike the paramilitaries, whose membership and their participation in terrorist incidents were never recorded.
It is obvious from the letters that apart from its records the MoD has a paucity of information about the events under investigation. It does not seem of sufficient strength, for example, to allow MoD lawyers to seek search warrants.
Surely it is unacceptable that aged men are being asked to remember events of long ago and possibly implicate themselves or former colleagues.
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Another concern is the quality of evidence which might be obtained through this fishing exercise.
Prosecutors would need to be very careful that any move towards charging any of these veterans meets the double test, that the case is in the public interest and that the possibility of a conviction is more likely than an acquittal.
The passage of time and the ravages of time could well distort whatever evidence is uncovered and make the prosecution of soldiers unlikely, meaning that elderly men would have felt threatened unnecessarily and that bereaved families would feel cheated of justice yet again.
This is an unseemly exercise and the creation of an evidence trail needs to be handled much more sensitively.