DUP hits out at prosecution of army veteran who died from Covid

Serious questions need to be raised about the prosecution of an 80-year-old army veteran over a fatal shooting during Northern Ireland’s Troubles, the Democratic Unionist party leader has said, following the death of the former soldier from Covid on Monday evening.

Dennis Hutchings, who had denied killing 27-year-old John Pat Cunningham in 1974, was three days into his trial in Belfast when he contracted the virus. He had kidney disease and was on dialysis.

The Northern Ireland prosecution service said the decision to bring the soldier to trial was in the public interest.

The DUP leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, said: “There now stands serious questions around those who made the decision that Dennis should stand trial once more. He was honourable. He wanted to clear his name again but was dragged to a court and hounded until his death.

“This is a sad indictment on those who want to rewrite history but also demands serious questions of the public prosecution service about how this trial was deemed to be in the public interest.”

The Ulster Unionist party leader, Doug Beattie, called for an independent review of the prosecution, questioning whether the trial had hastened Hutchings’ death

The deputy director of public prosecutions in Northern Ireland, Michael Agnew, said the decision to prosecute was “taken after an impartial and independent application of the test for prosecution”.

“Whilst a review of a previous no prosecution decision does not require the existence of new evidence, the police investigation in this case resulted in a file being submitted to the PPS, which included certain evidence not previously available,” Agnew added.

Hutchings’ death has reopened the controversy over legacy prosecutions that the government is proposing to end with new legislation.

Hutchings, from Cawsand, Torpoint in Cornwall, denied the charges and had said he wanted to clear his name. Earlier this month, his lawyers said he had taken a case alleging a breach of the Human Rights Act to the European court of human rights in Strasbourg on the grounds that military veterans had been subjected to discriminatory treatment.

“It’s too late for me [not to face trial] but it’s not too late for the government to do the right thing for all those veterans who served to maintain peace in Northern Ireland and who continue to live in fear of a knock on the door.

“But if the government won’t act or listen to the veterans and the British people, then I hope Strasbourg will,” Hutchings said at the time.

The DUP and the other main political parties are united in their opposition to new laws that would “remove all judicial recourse for innocent victims”, but it had questioned the weight of evidence for bringing the veteran to trial.

“He was an 80-year-old veteran, in ill health on dialysis and there was a lack of compelling new evidence.”

The court had heard that the prosecution had accepted the case against Hutchings was largely circumstantial as no forensic evidence to identify which bullets struck Cunningham was collected.

However, the prosecutor said the shooting could “never be lawful or justified” and the 27-year-old was unarmed and not posing a threat. He was an adult with learning difficulties and had “the mind of a child”, the court heard.

The Cunningham family, which has sought justice for more than 40 years, is expected to make a statement later on Tuesday.

The Conservative MP Johnny Mercer, who has campaigned against prosecutions for legacy killings and had travelled to Belfast to support the former soldier, had called the trial a “grotesque experience” for Hutchings.

source: theguardian.com