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Blackman & Azaria ‘Unlawful Killing’ Cases Evoke Intense Reaction

British soldier’s early release re-ignites the argument

Sgt. Alexander Blackman, the British Royal Marine imprisoned for killing an injured and captive Taliban fighter, has been released from prison. Originally found guilty of murder, the veteran’s sentence was reduced to manslaughter via appeal, on the grounds that he was suffering from mental illness which impaired his ability to make rational decisions at the time of the killing. Blackman was released in the early hours of April 28 having served three-and-a-half years of his seven-year term.
The Blackman case was compared and contrasted to that of Israeli soldier Elor Azaria, who was caught on video as he shot an injured Palestinian as he lay prostrate on the ground and already under restraint after he and an accomplice attacked and injured two other soldiers with a knife. Azaria was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to 18 months in prison, a sentence he is currently serving.

Both of these cases were sources of intense controversy in their home countries. In the UK, the tabloid Daily Mail and campaign group Justice for Marine A (the alias under which Blackman originally stood trial) led efforts to exonerate the sergeant, whose sentencing was described by the latter as “one of, if not the, biggest injustices in modern history.” In Israel, right-wing government ministers declared that Azaria should never have been brought to trial and called for a pardon while army generals urged prosecution in the name of ‘the rule of law.’
Some believe Blackman was let down by his chain of command, while others deny this as an excuse. Similarly, in Israel, some feel Azaria is being scapegoated, while others argue that leniency in his case condones brutality towards Palestinians.

Both cases underscore the infrequency with which soldiers prosecuted for allegations of unlawful killings receive sentences commensurate with convictions for like crimes in a civilian setting.
On November 19th, 2005, a squad of US marines killed 24 unarmed Iraqi civilians when they stormed several houses in the city of Haditha, following a roadside bomb attack which killed one of their comrades and injured two others. According to a local doctor who received the Iraqi bodies, some had been shot in the head and chest at close range, and a number of the dead were young children. After a lengthy trial process a single marine, the commander on the ground, Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich, pleaded guilty to dereliction of duty, for which he received a pay and rank reduction but no prison time.

Cases such as these form the basis of recriminations on the part of the local communities. The Haditha killings – and even more so another incident involving US troops and the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl and her family in Mahmudiyah, south of Baghdad – left a lasting resentment among Iraqis. “Why? Because the military courts [empathize] with the soldiers meaning there are lots of extenuating circumstances that these courts take into consideration,” Akeel Abbas, an Iraqi journalist and academic with the American University of Iraq Sulaimani, told The Media Line.
“For Iraqis, the enormity of the crimes is not matched with the seriousness of the punishment,” he explained. None of the soldiers involved in the premeditated rape and murder case in Mahmudiyah on the 16th of March, 2006, received the death penalty, Abbas argued, although several of the soldiers remain in prison.

Experts agree that part of the reason for the alleged discrepancy in prosecuting “boots on the ground” is that there is no party at home interested in seeing soldiers, who are doing a dangerous and unpleasant job on behalf of their country, prosecuted. Governments often face political heat for putting troops in harm’s way in the first place so to then punish these same troops for actions they committed during those operations can have political consequences. The sight of coffins returning from the front are among the most discordant images to the public and images of soldiers on trial is also problematic for the political echelon.

“Domestically the political pressure is usually ‘stop these frivolous prosecutions of our boys who are putting themselves in harm’s way to protect the country,’” Avner Gidron, a senior policy advisor with the human rights organization Amnesty International, told The Media Line. There is a sense that prosecuting servicemen is a betrayal of the sacrifice they have made, a sentiment that is especially heightened in Israel where each soldier-conscript is seen as ‘everybody’s son.’
But rights activists argue that there is a danger in not holding troops accountable because it creates a sense of impunity. And, they say, in such an environment acts far worse than a single unlawful killing can take place.
“Actual criminal investigation of alleged violations is probably quite rare compared to the number of credible allegations that there are. And then actual prosecution is even rarer,” Gidron suggested, adding, “Conviction – that is truly exceptional.”

He argues that the only reason trials of either Blackman or Azaria took place is that cameras happened to capture the killings. AI concludes that if there is no video evidence, a soldier wearing the uniform of his or her country will usually be given the benefit of the doubt.

“I think there is a natural inclination, both among service members and among society at large to want to believe that soldiers won’t commit unlawful acts in warfare,” Rich DiMeglio, a retired Lieutenant Colonel with the US Army’s legal branch, told The Media Line. DiMeglio knows first-hand that this is not the case. During a tour of Iraq several soldiers in his unit were implicated in the killing of an Iraqi farmer, Genei Nasir Khudair al-Janabi. One, Evan Vela, was found guilty of murder and sentenced to ten-years in prison.

But DiMeglio rejected the notion that militaries are unwilling to prosecute their soldiers when they break the rules of war, pointing to the efforts his command made to prosecute the Al-Janabi case. “The military has a strong desire to enforce good order and discipline, and for soldiers to adhere to the laws of armed conflict – it’s kind of what makes us different to the enemy we often find ourselves facing today,” he explained. The fact that many opponents confronted by Western militaries intentionally hide among civilian populations makes this all the more challenging.
According to DiMeglio, in order for public opinion, morale within the military, and the “hearts and minds” of local people during overseas operations to be maintained, it is necessary to adhere to the rule of law. “You don’t get anywhere or advance the unit’s mission by doing the wrong thing or by murdering civilians,” he concluded.

Of course, neither the Blackman or the Azaria case occurred in isolation. At the time of the Hebron shooting Israelis were reeling from dozens of stabbing and car ramming attacks that seemed unending. Azaria’s supporters argue his nerves were understandably on edge, especially as one of his friends had just been stabbed. And the courts do take these psychological factors into account. Blackman’s conviction was reduced from murder to manslaughter because of the impact of combat stress upon the sergeant’s ability to think rationally – in the days before the killing Taliban fighters left the remains of a slain UK marine booby-trapped and hanging from a tree, an incident that was particularly hard for Blackman and his comrades to bear.

What most seem to agree upon is that many of the military crimes in question are seen as sensational in nature and accordingly, will continue to evoke intense reactions from all sides of the argument.