Boer soldiers' pardons sought

2010-02-10 22:10

Adelaide - Australia has asked the British government to pardon two Boer War soldiers whose 1902 courts martial and executions have become part of Australian folklore.

Attorney-General Robert McClelland sent a petition requesting the pardon last week, military lawyer James Unkles said on Wednesday.

Lieutenants Harry "Breaker" Morant and Peter Handcock were found guilty by a British court martial of killing prisoners of war in the final days of the South African conflict. They were executed in Pretoria by a firing squad.

Morant, in particular, has been immortalised in books, a stage play and a 1980 film.

Unkles, who wrote the petition, said the soldiers' trial was marred by legal mistakes and secrecy. His petition asks for a comprehensive legal review of the case.

Strong case

He said he has found 10 areas of concern - including lack of legal advice until the day before the trial, solitary confinement for three months without contact with lawyers or even a chaplain, and no communication with the Australian government.

"I really do believe there are some strong and compelling reasons to review the case," Unkles said. "I expect a pardon on the strength of its merits."

Although much of Morant's story is well known to Australians, Unkles said his is the first legal review of the case.

British-born Morant became a horse-breaker and poet in Australia who was known as a "larrikin", an Australian term for a good-natured scoundrel. The Breaker Bar in the Renmark Hotel in South Australia bears his name because he once allegedly rode a horse into the upstairs bar.

Admitted to crimes

He and Handcock both volunteered to fight with the British in South Africa in 1899 and were assigned to the Bushveldt Carbineers. In the waning days of the war in 1901, that unit killed 12 prisoners of war and a German missionary who witnessed the murders.

The Australians admitted shooting Boer prisoners but Unkles said a double standard was applied to them, as other soldiers of other nationalities had done the same thing.

It was not clear whether there had been orders to shoot the prisoners.

Morant, Handcock and another Australian, George Witton, were arrested in October 1901 and held in solitary confinement until their trial in February 1902.

No contact

Once sentenced on February 26, Morant and Handcock were prevented from contacting their relatives or the Australian government, and from lodging a plea for clemency.

They were executed just 18 hours later.

The Australian government did not even learn they had been arrested until three months after the soldiers had been executed, Unkles said.

Witton was sentenced to penal servitude for life. He was released in 1904 after a petition from Australia signed by 100 000 people.

Unkles said he hopes for the best from the Australian request to Britain.

"We'll only get one chance at a review," he said. "I vehemently believe in this case. The fact that it happened 108 years ago doesn't bother me at all. The principles at stake are just as relevant now as they were back then."

But Craig Wilcox, author of Australia's Boer War: The War in South Africa, said Morant and Handcock should not be honoured with a pardon for war crimes.

"Lining up civilians by the roadside and killing them, that's just not right," said Wilcox. "My gut reaction is that they shouldn't be pardoned."