Marine A, or Alexander Blackman, as he has now been named, will walk free at Easter after his sentence for murder of an unarmed Taliban combatant in Helmand Province was quashed and reduced to manslaughter.
There are shades of grey in any given case, but this one rankles harder than most. The bare facts are simple enough – a Royal Marine sergeant belonging to the 42 Commando Unit came across an Afghan insurgent who had been wounded.
The unit moved the Afghan to an area out of sight, at which point Blackman ordered two comrades to stop administering first aid. He shot the fighter in the chest with a 9mm pistol, saying “Shuffle off this mortal coil, you c**t.”
He told his colleagues “It’s nothing he wouldn’t do to us,” before making sure they knew that they shouldn’t be telling anyone else about the incident, adding “I just broke the Geneva Convention.”
Eventually, an audio file of the incident made its way to British High Command. Blackman was given a dishonourable discharge from the Marines, and eventually, on 5th December 2013, was served a sentence of life imprisonment with a minimum service of ten years. This was reduced to a minimum of eight years in the March of the following year.
The murmurings of discontent began. Richard Drax, the MP for South Dorset and a former Army Officer himself, led the charge on getting Blackman’s imprisonment sentenced and as more and more public voices petitioned for an appeal, the clamour got too big to ignore.
Thus, an appeal was ordered and at the Royal Courts of Justice, Blackman’s murder conviction was overturned and replaced by one for manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility, meaning that the former Marine, who has already served three and a half years of the sentence, will be at home within weeks.
The appeal court judges claimed that Blackman had been “an exemplary soldier before his deployment to Afghanistan in March 2011”, and made clear that “the appellant suffered from quite exceptional stressors ... during the time of that deployment which increasingly impacted on him the longer he was in command at command post Omar.”
Blackman’s wife Claire, who has orchestrated the campaign for his conviction to be reviewed with a never-waiving vigour, celebrated the news of the change outside the Court. She said that the resulting sentence “much better reflected the circumstances that [her] husband found himself in during that terrible tour of Afghanistan”.
For Sergeant Blackman’s family, the news is redemption for their man, who they feel has been victimised and made an example of. But is this the case? Or has a soldier who knowingly broke the Geneva Convention just ‘got away with murder’?
Article 3 of the Geneva Convention states that “Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed ' hors de combat ' by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria.”
In that vein, it goes on to prohibit “the passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court, affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples.”
There are a number of arguments at play, however. The one which has mattered in this case is the discussion of the mental capacity of the aggressor, and ultimately the court has decided that the exceptional circumstances that Blackman found himself in meant that his ability to make rational judgement calls was severely impaired.
Indeed, to be quoting William Shakespeare as one fires a bullet from point blank range into another human being’s chest suggests there might be more than meets the eye to Sergeant Blackman’s state of mental wellbeing.
But in the situation, where the unit were underequipped, under exceptional pressure and seeing their enemy break the Geneva Convention on a daily basis, there is some merit to the argument that Blackman was clearly not going to be seeing everything as clear as day – the depiction of limbs from their dismembered comrades hanging on trees to taunt the British soldiers is enough to make anyone mad.
However, as many of Sergeant Blackman’s supporters might say – this is war. No-one signs up to go to Helmand and thinks it’s all going to be sunshine and rainbows – that would be someone mentally unstable. Plenty of soldiers are under stress at any given time, doing their job. Not all of them have executed an unarmed prisoner.
If the UK High Court is allowing a soldier who knowingly broke international statute law to walk free because of the weight of public appeal, is that something we should be celebrating?
Is our adherence to these codes not what separates us from those we are fighting because we claim them to be outlaws? And if Blackman really was suffering from breakdown, will the Marines revoke his dismissal in disgrace? The pieces don’t all add up to the whole picture, and Sergeant Blackman’s case will continue to divide opinion. Can you be both the hero and the villain?
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