Latest twist in soldier prosecution ‘a travesty’

Former soldier Dennis Hutchings
Former soldier Dennis Hutchings

The move to re-instate a charge of attempted murder against soldier over a 1974 fatal shooting has been dubbed a “travesty”.

Gavin Robinson, erstwhile MP for East Belfast and member of the Defence Select Committee at Westminster, said the treatment of Dennis Hutchings will “only encourage” the development of the kind of de facto amnesty for ex-soldiers which was proposed by MPs late last month.

Dennis Hutchings (now aged 76, and with an address in Torpoint, Cornwall) had been arrested in 2015 and was due to stand trial for the attempted murder of mentally-impaired man John Pat Cunningham, who was said to have been running away when he was shot at in the area of Benburb, Co Tyrone.

A judge said this March that he should not face an attempted murder charge, but rather an attempted grievous bodily harm charge.

Despite this, The News Letter revealed on Saturday that the PPS is pressing ahead with the more serious charge.

Mr Robinson, who is vying to re-take the East Belfast seat for the DUP, said: “It’s a travesty that not only do they continue to pursue it, but they’ve now increased the charge.

“This is a man who was investigated previously and was told the matter had been brought to a close.

“Personally, it’s an incredibly difficult situation for Dennis Hutchings and his family, but more broadly it sends a chill down the spine of all honourable veterans who served this country so well.”

On April 26, the Tory-dominated defence committee had published a report which called for a statute of limitations to be introduced for ex-military personnel, barring prosecutions for incidents which happened before 1998.

Mr Robinson said the act of reinstating the charge “will redouble the efforts” to implement such a statute, and “encourage the Conservative Party, I would have thought, more fervently to support the defence committee’s call”.

He added: “I’ve no doubt when Parliament returns this will be high on the agenda.”

Parliament has previously been told Mr Hutchings “vehemently denies” attempted murder, and his ex-commanding officer Paul Hearson told the News Letter that “based on the character of Dennis Hutchings, which I know well, I feel sure he is innocent of any charges that could be put before him”.

Asked about the reinstatement of the charge, the PPS initially said: “All decisions are taken in strict accordance with the PPS Code for Prosecutors.”

And following criticism of the move, a PPS spokesperson added: “While there has been some political commentary over the recent period, political considerations play no part in any decision taken by the PPS.

“Our decision-making is fair, independent and impartial and is not influenced by improper or undue pressure from any source, in line with the Code for Prosecutors.”